Patrick Kane and Eric Staal battle for the puck in USA's 5-3 victory Sunday night. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Does anyone else miss the NHL? Is anyone else tired of watching the Olympic men’s hockey tournament? Anyone else think that while commissioner Gary Bettman says the decision on whether to shutter the NHL for two weeks in 2014 in order to allow NHL players to participate in the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia won’t be made until after a new CBA in 2011, the cost/benefit analysis was recorded in his mind well before Vancouver?
When last we saw NHL action, six teams were battling for the final three playoff spots in the East. Out West, the Northwest Division title was being decided by a tiebreak, Phoenix and Los Angeles were in a dogfight for home ice in Round 1 and seven teams had a shot at the final two playoff positions. Boring!
Let’s get to the real excitement! Let’s shut ‘er down for two weeks and participate in the Olympic Winter Games! Where else can hockey fans on the East Coast of the U.S., stay up until 2:30 in the morning to watch Russian NHLers and Kontinental Leaguers combine to pummel Latvia 8-2? Or witness an entire nation become giddy over an 8-0 win in which the losing team fired all of 15 shots at the winning goaltender? Now that’s worth closing down a league for alright. (Yes, a handful of games subsequently provided some drama, but…)
Actually, the Canada-Norway game may have been the greatest ever played. However, those of us living in the United States weren’t able to see it on television until well after the game had started as we were being treated to an edge-of-your-seat women’s curling match between the USA and Japan. Forget all those NHL stars playing men’s ice hockey; give us more women’s curling!
Therein lies one of many problems for the NHL going on hiatus for two weeks. How does the league maintain momentum, fan interest, playoff race excitement and relevancy when not only is it not playing, but there is no guarantee its greatest stars will be properly showcased by network television during the break? The NHL does not control starting times, television broadcasts, or network priorities. In the minds of the suits at NBC, their viewers would prefer to watch the losing effort of American women in a sport most Americans only see every four years and know nothing about, rather than watch Canadian-born NHL superstars win in a blowout.
NBC, the NHL’s network “partner,” has pretty much relegated the sport to its lesser-light stations, MSNBC, CNBC and USA Network. Even hardcore hockey fans are challenged to find the live hockey broadcasts. How difficult would it be if NBC wasn’t a partner? These games are in North America and a three-hour time difference with the East Coast. Imagine the interest that would be generated in the U.S. and NBC corporate offices when the games are being held in Sochi and televised at odd hours.
The NHL will not be going to Sochi in 2014. Then what? Imagine Washington is in a battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and ‘Alexander the Great’ announces he is leaving for two-plus weeks to go to Sochi. Will the NHL adopt a league-wide policy prohibiting players from participating, even with NHL club permission? If Ovechkin goes, must they suspend him without pay? If not, does the team face NHL fines and sanctions?
The commissioner has said the NHL will make the participation decision first and then decide possible sanctions, if necessary. It appears the action off the ice leading to Sochi may be more scintillating than the hockey. Let those games begin.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2009-10 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.