NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league plans to meet soon with the 2018 Winter Olympic organizers and decide if its players will participate.
Just when Michael Corleone thought he was out, they pulled him back in. And every time it seems the NHL’s Olympic adventure will die – no, seriously, this time we’re never going back – the twinkle returns to the league’s collective eye.
The league currently has no arrangement to participate in a sixth straight Winter Games, which shifts to South Korea for 2018, and no short-term timetable to make a decision. At a sport management conference Monday, NHL deputy commissioner Billy Daly told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston a decision “should be made quickly,” but that the league needs more information from the Olympic organizing committee. Daly hopes to learn soon “where hockey fits in the pecking order.”
It’s not an easy decision for the league and its owners, who don’t benefit directly from Olympic participation in any way. The tournament belongs to the International ice Hockey Federation. The league doesn’t profit and, in some cases, the Olympics damage the league’s assets. The New York Islanders felt the sting last year when John Tavares blew out his knee in Sochi. You can make the argument the international exposure helps the league profit indirectly, but Daly said last year the NHL’s profile is so much higher than it was during the 1998 Nagano Games that the exposure doesn’t mean as much today. And as Bettman put it in the summer to the CBC,
“When we were in Vancouver? Absolutely great. Couldn’t have been better. Salt Lake City? Terrific. But when you’re in other time zones in other places, you don’t get quite as much attention, you don’t get quite as much visibility for the game and you give up a lot to do it. It’s always a balancing act and when you’re outside of North America, the balance is harder to strike.”
And even with the Games played in hockey-mad Russia this past winter, the time difference did some damage. The Canadian men’s gold medal win over Sweden, played at 7:00 a.m., drew 5,764,000 viewers. The 2010 final versus the U.S., played in the afternoon? $16.5 million viewers. You can’t say Canada’s opponent sapped the ratings when they were triple.
So it’s easy to see the league’s perspective, especially with the games shifting to Pyeongchang, which doesn’t have a tradition of hockey in its culture at all. But how much weight should the players’ opinion carry? The majority of them have enthusiastically participated in the Games ever since the NHL struck its original deal, and they want to continue participating by most accounts. Donald Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association’s executive director, said earlier this year the union wasn’t convinced the NHL should end its marriage with the Games, and that “There are a whole bunch of players who want to play, and the ones who don’t like the break.”
Fehr added that, even though the NHL would prefer to control its own rules and revenue in a World Cup of Hockey, that tournament and the Olympics don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
So it will be interesting to see what the NHL decides. Will it rule in favor of its own pockets and that of its owners? Or will it make a decision in the name of union relations, placating a player pool that primarily enjoys representing its country (and getting time off, for those not selected to the teams)? Despite league’s apparent skepticism, I’ll believe the players aren’t going to South Korea when I see it.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin