Gary Bettman. Image by: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The NHL should receive plenty of scorn for not leveraging its Olympic success, and ultimately deciding to drop out because of the bottom line.
First things first. Even though the NHL announced Monday that it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, saying, “we now consider the matter officially closed,” your trusty correspondent is not convinced that this is the final, final decision on the matter. First, Olympic participation was not decided in 2014 until July, so there’s still time if the league changes its mind. Second, if the league gets offered a better deal than the one that currently exists, who’s to say it won’t jump on board?
All that has to happen is for the NHL owners to get a deal that serves their short-term interests best. That’s how these guys roll. Because if they had any long-term vision at all, they’d know they were making a terrible decision in pulling out of the Olympics. Because no matter what they do, there is nothing their lipstick-on-a-pig World Cash Grab of Hockey™ can do to capture the world’s imagination the way the Olympics do. The league loves to grow the game, but only if it can grow its own coffers at the same time.
Hey, it’s their league and they can run it the way they please. So, yes, the NHL has earned the right to position itself as the worst league in the world that showcases the best game in the world. It has a right to think like Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, whose most prominent argument against the Olympics was that Erik Karlsson isn’t a Canadian so he shouldn't go. Seriously. In everything from discipline to philosophy to the way it runs its business, the NHL leads the world in provincial thinkers.
Fans who wanted to see the best players in the world playing on the biggest stage in the world will be quick to vilify NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for this. And if that’s the case, I’m here to tell you your ire is misdirected. If you want someone to blame, John Tavares is as good a guy as anyone. Because when he got hurt in Sochi, that was the last straw for owners who can see nothing beyond the bottom lines of their own teams. These guys see dollar signs, and when someone such as the International Olympic Committee stands up to them and tells them they’re not getting a piece of the pie, they pack their hockey bags and go home. This decision was ownership driven, so if you’re looking for someone to blame, you have to go a lot higher than Bettman.
Here’s what the NHL doesn’t see when it comes to the Olympics. Prior to the 2010 Games, I went to Washington to do a piece on Alex Ovechkin. That was the day I met a woman by the name of Kim Janelle, a single mother of four children who shelled out $2,400 each year for Capitals season tickets and travelled one hour each way every day just to watch the Capitals practice. She got to know Ovechkin’s parents to the point where her son Korey would refer to Ovechkin’s father as “Papa.” She picked her tickets so that she would have the chance to see Ovechkin skate down the left wing for two periods.
Janelle had never watched a hockey game prior to the 2006 Olympics. But she happened to be tuned into a game in which Russia was playing and couldn’t keep her eyes off No. 8 for the Russian team. When she found out later that he played for the local team, she immediately bought tickets and became a member of Capitals Nation. It’s impossible to quantify how many Kim Janelle’s there are out there, but thanks to the NHL we don’t have to worry about that anymore. The league can simply go out to the low-hanging money tree that is the World Cash Grab of Hockey™, taking revenues from its loyal fans without ever worrying about cultivating new ones.
The fact the NHL hasn’t turned its Olympic participation into tangible results, then, is the fault of an IOC that refuses to give the league a cut of the revenues? Or the players, who weren’t dumb and shortsighted enough to fall for the league’s offer to extend the current collective bargaining agreement in return for Olympic participation? Or is it the fault of the International Ice Hockey Federation, a body that has bent over backward to accommodate the league to the point where it would pay the costs associated with NHL participation?
No, if you’re in the business of finger pointing, direct it at the NHL. This league has showcased some of the best hockey that has ever been played in the history of the game in this event and done absolutely nothing to leverage that. It’s like it goes to the Olympics for two weeks, then forgets about everything and goes back to the stretch drive for the playoffs. Where is the NHL Europe office? Where is a true, well-thought-out international strategy that includes Olympic participation? Where’s the follow up on the excitement it creates?
If this is indeed another negotiating ploy by the NHL that will result in it getting more of what it wants, then good on the league for playing it this way. If that happens, it should go out and give seminars on brinksmanship. It would make millions. If not and the Olympics are indeed dead, then it deserves every bit of negative publicity it receives.