PITTSBURGH – Whether or not the NHL continues to participate in the Winter Olympics will come down to dollars, “many, many, many millions of dollars,” according to NHL commission Gary Bettman. When the most powerful man in hockey uses the word “many” three times, you know it’s a significant chunk of change. In his annual state of the union address preceding the Stanley Cup final, Bettman said the International Olympic Committee’s and International Ice Hockey Federation’s decision to not pay the league’s biggest expenses – contract insurance, travel and accommodations for player’s families – is an “easy showstopper”.
“If presidents Thomas Bach of the IOC and Rene Fasel of the IIHF are unable to resolve the expense issue, I have no doubt that it will have a significant impact on our decision,” Bettman said. “I’m pretty sure our teams are not interested in paying for the privilege of disrupting our season, but we’ll have to see what they ultimately decide to do.” That is code for “NHL participation is dead if this issue is not resolved,” just in case you needed that spelled out for you all. The NHL’s interest in continuing Olympic participation has been tepid at best and this gives the league a perfect out. In fact, even if this issue is resolved, sending players to PyeongChang in 2018 and beyond is hardly a given. “If the IOC and the IIHF aren’t willing to pay what they’ve paid for the last five Olympics…that almost becomes an easy showstopper and you don’t even have to get into the Olympic discussion,” Bettman said. “We have to go through a whole host of considerations that need to be evaluated. But we don’t even have to have that discussion or debate if the expenses aren’t being paid.” The IOC has made it clear that it doesn’t support paying expenses for any professional leagues. Bettman points out that the NHL is the only league whose season shuts down to accommodate Olympic participation but if they’re talking about transportation, contract insurance and accommodations, those costs would be the same whether the NHL shut down its season or not. And it’s not as though the league misses out on any revenues because it still plays the same number of games and has a full playoff? So is this really a red herring that the league is using as an excuse to get itself off the hook? Not sure, but it does seem convenient, doesn’t it? But these are very real, very high costs and a lot of people would understand if the league backed out over this one. But there simply has to be a creative solution here. Neither the NHL nor the IOC is interested in paying these costs. Fine. So now it’s time for someone else to step up here. How much would it be worth to a major corporate sponsor to pay these costs? Imagine how much favor it would curry with hockey fans to see, say a Coca-Cola or General Motors save NHL Olympic participation. Better yet, wouldn’t it make sense for NBC and CBC, the networks that have the broadcast rights in the United States and Canada, to pay that bill? After all, they’re the ones who stand to gain the most in the form of higher ratings with the best players in the world playing in the tournament. There is no decision expected on this file until well after the World Cash Grab of Hockey™, the low-hanging fruit that will line the pockets of the NHL and NHLPA by hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s many, many, many dollars. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he expects a final call will be made sometime by December or January. That leaves six or seven months for everyone to somehow find a creative way to get these expenses paid. That’s a lot of time. And there’s a lot of money out there. If there’s a will to get this done, it can be done. It’s up to someone, anyone, to make sure this gets resolved and takes away any excuse the NHL might have to stop taking part in the biggest sports spectacle on the planet. This one will have to come from somewhere outside the box because those in the box seem to have no interest in making it happen.