There are few people in hockey, nay the world, who do dripping sarcasm better than NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. And Bettman was at his best last week after meeting with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. A former Olympic fencer, Bach no doubt met his feint and counter-parry match at the negotiating table when the two met face-to-face for the first time last Friday in New York.
Both sides, of course, downplayed the meeting, saying it was basically a courtesy call, but the fact the NHL finally got to see the whites of Bach’s eyes is a significant development. After the meeting, Bettman, in his typical way, came up with the following: “We were honored by (Bach’s) presence, that he took the time to come and visit with us.”
If you don’t think Bettman wasn’t twisting the epee into Bach and the IOC a little with that comment, then you don’t know Bettman.
He’s a man that calculates every word he says and uses them for maximum effect. It also indicated that for the first time, this does appear to be more of a negotiation than we’re being led to believe. As things unfold, we’re also coming to the realization that perhaps the NHL doesn’t hold all the cards here, that the threat of not being able to go to Beijing in 2022 or having the players balk on its international road map might be enough for the league to consider its position.
We should have, of course, known this all along. The NHL would have people believe there’s no tangible benefit to participating in the Olympics, but how does that explain the Washington Capitals fan who goes to almost every practice and bought season tickets after seeing Alex Ovechkin play in the Games? The players and the fans want it and the NHL knows that.
And let’s face it, if the league were absolutely dead-set against going to Pyeongchang next season, it would have drawn that line in the concrete already. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, keeping the league from making that decision right now if it’s a philosophical issue. That’s not going to change in the next couple of months, yet the NHL continues to dither on its decision. There are still some cards to be played here and the NHL realizes that. This is what master negotiators, and Bettman is nothing if not that, do in these situations.
So that leaves us on the cusp here. And it allows fans to throw a pox on everyone’s house if this deal doesn’t ultimately end up getting done. (Or as my late father would have said, “If they don’t make this work somehow, they all deserve to be shot with a bucket of their own sh--.”) It’s pretty clear there is a deal to be made here that will meet everyone’s needs. If that weren’t the case, the league would have made its final decision to not go by now. Think about it. The league doesn’t even have a venue yet for next year’s All-Star Game because it doesn’t know if it’s even going to be holding an All-Star Game. These things take a lot of time to plan and if the league is willing to continue to hold out on an Olympic decision, it’s pretty obvious it thinks there’s something for which it’s worth to hold out.
The next Olympics will be a tough slog for a league that is already seeing the ramifications of a schedule that was compressed by the World Cup and the bye week that each team now receives. The time difference will not make for the greatest viewing experience and the low-hanging fruit in terms of benefits to the league might not actually be there in Pyeongchang. But if it means the league gets to go to Beijing and can make inroads into that market, then perhaps Pyeongchang will be viewed as a loss leader with the big prize coming in 2022 when the eyes of the world are on Beijing.
One thing is certain, however. The longer the NHL waits to make a decision, the better it looks for participation. Not the reverse. The fact the NHL has dithered on this indicates there is a reason for it to dither. The fact that it finally met with Bach is a positive and that it continues to wait should have those who want to see this happen encouraged.