TORONTO – Having heard several impassioned pleas from the floor and from members of his own panel, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke leaned into a microphone and raised his voice as he laid out reasons why the NHL would consider pulling out of the Olympics.
It had become the dominant issue at the world hockey summit Wednesday in Toronto, beginning with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s public appearance and continuing into the afternoon panel discussion. High-ranking officials from North America and Europe were drawn into several colourful exchanges.
And, as usual, none were more colourful than Burke.
“It’s not that simple to get everyone on a goddamned plane and go over and play the games,” Burke said. “I want to go, and I think we should go. But for people to say ‘it’s priceless,’ it’s not that simple. We have teams that are losing $30-million a year.
“Do you think they want me to stand up in a meeting and say, ‘I don’t want to hear about the problems. Let’s get on a plane?’ It’s not that simple, and we’re letting it become an emotional issue in this room.”
The NHL has been sending players to the Olympics since 1998, and a decision has not been rendered for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
“We haven’t said ‘no,'” Bettman said. “And anybody who suggests that we’ve made a decision or suggests I’m anti-Olympics doesn’t get it, because what we’ve been simply saying is, ‘it’s a mixed bag.'”
Bettman said league research indicated fans were split on the issue, and laid out a series of hurdles and questions requiring answers. He said some NHL fans believe the Olympics should be the domain of amateur athletes.
He also raised concern about scheduling, wondering what time hockey games would take place in Russia. Bettman said the NHL’s board of governors would be hard-pressed to shut the league down for two weeks if Olympic hockey games were televised in the middle of the night in North America, given the time difference.
He also suggested some broadcasters are planning to submit two bids for the Games—one price if the NHL is involved, and another if the NHL stays home.
“Even in nightmare, I cannot imagine the NHL will go this way,” said Alexander Medvedev, president of the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.
Proponents of the NHL’s involvement argued for the increased exposure the sport receives on the world stage, as well as the meaning the best-on-best competition holds for the fans, as well as the players.
Burke was part of a panel scheduled to spend the afternoon exploring the idea of “establishing a long-term global event agenda,” alongside Medvedev, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, scout Anders Hedberg and broadcasters Glenn Healy and Paul Romanuk.
“To go to the Olympics, it’s priceless,” Hedberg said. “The rewards are so much greater than the negative and the problems … we should be playing in Sochi, we should be playing in 2018, 2020, ’24—keep going.”
Mike Ouellet, chief of business affairs with the NHL Players’ Association, was also part of the panel. He cited a two-year-old union survey which revealed 95 per cent of NHL players were in favour of continuing at the Olympics beyond the Vancouver Games.
But he also said the issue could not be used for leverage during collective bargaining sessions with the NHL. The current CBA is set to expire in September, 2012.
“The players have never admitted that they’re going to be giving anything up in order to go and play the Games,” Ouellet said. “I think people should recognize it won’t be a huge bone of contention, and it won’t be used as a bargaining chip against the players.”
Burke, who has suggested hockey request a move to the Summer Olympics to accommodate the NHL’s regular season schedule, argued against allowing any emotion to enter into the discussion.
“The Olympics don’t hurt the Toronto Maple Leafs, it doesn’t hurt our business model,” Burke said. “But in Anaheim it does. In Nashville, it does. In Florida, it does.”
Bettman faced a handful of business-related issues in a separate question-and-answer session with reporters. One of the first non-Olympics questions he faced was about the possibility of placing another team in Quebec City.
“Is Quebec City going to have a new arena?” he asked. “Because I can’t even begin to think about a team back in Quebec City until there’s going to be a new arena.”
He was also asked about his feelings on Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract situation, after an arbitrator ruled against a 17-year, US$102-million contract offer from the New Jersey Devils.
“No satisfaction, whatsoever,” Bettman said.
The main topic, though, was the Olympics.
“We’ve gone to the last four Olympics, and if somebody has to take the blame or the credit for that, it’s me,” Bettman said. “The elephant in the room is simply that we haven’t made a decision yet. And I don’t think the fact we haven’t made a decision yet is that big a deal.”