THN in Sochi: To go or not to go? That is question for NHL

IIHF president Rene Fasel and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have a lot of work to do over the next little while when it comes to determining whether or not the NHL will continue to participate on the world’s biggest stage every four years.

SOCHI – The instant T.J. Oshie scored his fourth shootout goal in USA’s game against Russia, he became an overnight sensation. Oshie almost immediately gained 125,000 Twitter followers, including the most powerful man in the world, U.S. president Barack Obama.

Which is as good a backdrop as any to discuss the NHL’s future involvement in the Olympics. The problem is, it’s difficult to quantify what that kind of exposure means to the NHL brand. A World Cup of Hockey would be low-hanging fruit, the league and its players would split revenues 50-50. Lots of money and a clear and tangible bump to the bottom line.

But how do you measure the impact of Oshie being tweeted by the American president? How do you factor in the hockey fan I once met in Washington who purchased Capitals season tickets after watching Alex Ovechkin play in the Olympics?

A news conference Tuesday featuring NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr and International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel turned into a little cat-and-mouse game concerning future participation. But three things are very clear. First, the players want to continue playing in the Olympics regardless of where they are. Second, there will be a World Cup of Hockey whether or not the NHL stays in the Olympics. And third, everyone will go through this ritualistic mating dance every four years. There is no benefit to the NHL to commit to the Games long-term, so it won’t.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly claims Olympic participation is not a dollars and cents proposition for the league. He also said he believes the league could arbitrarily decide to stop going to the Olympics, but it’s unlikely that will happen. He also reiterated what we’ve already known – that Olympic participation does almost nothing, good or bad, for the NHL’s bottom line.

“It’s sometimes tough to prove a negative,” Daly said Tuesday morning. “There’s more tangible data suggesting there’s no positive impact on our business from coming than tangible data that there’s negative impact on our business.”

The costs of insurance and travel for NHL players is paid by the IIHF, but aside from that the league and players receive no revenues from participating. That, despite Bettman’s assertion that “60 to 70 percent” of revenues from ticket sales, other than the opening and closing ceremonies, come from hockey. Fasel said ticket revenues, however are only a small amount of the take, saying, “The ticketing is not the real business. It is TV that is the big income.” And the TV numbers for hockey are very good, even with the time difference. In fact, the USA-Russia game drew the highest numbers ever for a game on NBCSN.

The players, meanwhile, want to continue playing in the Olympics. Fehr said he would have to poll the players afterward to see how they feel, but an internal vote among the players indicated more than 99 percent support for participating and there’s little reason to believe that will change. The players are concerned about logistics – whether the buses for family members arrive on time and whether the players’ lounge is ready when they get there – and there has been nothing in Sochi to suggest there have been any problems in that regard. Think of it this way. The players who play in the Olympics get to represent their countries on the biggest stage in the world and gain memories that will last a lifetime. Those who don’t get to sit on a beach for a week in the middle of a long season. What’s not to like from their perspective?

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The World Cup of Hockey, and its god-awfully ugly trophy, will be revived. It’s too big a cash cow for both sides not to be held again. Whether that’s exclusive of the Olympics or along with them remains to be seen. Perhaps the players, particularly the elite ones, might not be too thrilled at the prospect of having to do this every two years. The league hopes to get this wrapped up in the next six months, but that might be difficult. The reality is, these things usually get resolved on their own time and there’s no incentive on the league to speed the process. Considering what is at stake, six months seems like a rather tall order.

If the NHL pulls out of the Olympics, it will be an enormous letdown for the IIHF and fans everywhere, but it’s the NHL’s game and its business and the league has every right to make that determination. It should just realize that there’s no way T.J. Oshie is getting tweets from Barack Obama if he scores four shootout goals in the World Cup.

NOTES: Bettman said the league has been keeping an eye on women’s hockey, but said there’s little chance it will follow the WNBA model. “There doesn’t yet seem to be a framework that would justify, from a business standpoint, a women’s professional league in North America. I can’t tell you it’s the No. 1 priority, but it is on the list of things we think requires further attention.”…Fasel and Bettman had some playful moments during the news conference. At one point Fasel said, “There’s nothing like an Olympic gold medal. Nothing.” To which Bettman replied, “Except perhaps winning the Stanley Cup.”…Daly said there’s little chance the NHL will adopt the international hockey rules for shootouts, which allow the same player to shoot multiple times after the first three shooters have gone. “I would be very surprised if the general managers would be supportive of that type of concept,” Daly said. “It’s tough enough they don’t like the shootout as it is. I think it becomes a situation where then you’re incentivized to essentially get somebody who’s good in the shootout.” The NHL, of course, has no problem being incentivized to get someone whose only redeeming quality is that he beats up people, however.