By Steve Lichtenstein
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I’m not in the habit of agreeing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the owners’ pawn who is most famous for just saying, “No!”
And now, to the Winter Olympics.
However, I find it hard to counter Bettman’s justifications in his announcement on Monday that the league will not be participating in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Sending the NHL’s top players halfway around the world is just not worth it. Between the multiple-week schedule shutdown in mid-season and the injury risk, what’s in it for the league?
Right, there’s the “good for the game” argument.
As one who loves the best-on-best competitions like the Olympics, the World Cup of Hockey, and, way back when, the Canada Cup, I would wake up at 4 in the morning to watch Finland play the Czech Republic. So would countless other fanatics.
But that’s not exactly “growing the game.”
Prime time on NBC is reserved for events like skiing and figure skating, sports that the network in its research concluded draw the most viewers.
Hockey ratings in Sochi were relatively inconsequential. The games were relegated to NBCSN, a channel number that isn’t often hit on my remote. The 2014 semifinal between the U.S. and Canada, which set a record for the sport on the network, drew an average of 3.9 million viewers. That’s about a third of Olympic men’s basketball game ratings in comparable locations. The women’s hoopsters get about twice as many viewers.
Unlike the NHL, the NBA didn’t have to contort their already-condensed game schedules to perform in the Olympics. In 2014, the NHL suspended play from Feb. 9-25, which created a crunch. The Islanders played 17 sets of back-to-backs in 2013-14. This season, they have 12.
As will be the case this season, the Islanders went down the stretch without the services of their captain, John Tavares, who suffered a severe knee injury while competing in Sochi. While I am a believer that such mishaps could happen on any ice surface, the fact that a superstar went down in a non-league event obviously sent shockwaves to the NHL’s owners.
Why take such a risk? It’s not like the World Cup, where the NHL owners and players share in the profits.
In the myopic world of the International Olympic Committee, the only allowed profit-maker is the IOC.
In fact, I’m surprised I’m even allowed to type the word “Olympics” without getting hit with a cease-and-desist order.
Much has been made over the NHL’s feud with the IOC regarding incidentals such as travel reimbursements and insurance, which reportedly were smoothed over in advance of the league’s travel ban to South Korea. As greedy as the owners have been throughout the NHL’s history, the IOC has been worse, and more corrupt.
The IOC’s initial grab for this relatively minor pot, for which it previously expended in prior Games, allegedly further alienated its supposed partner.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The NHL has tried to make its Players’ Association eat crow at every turn. The owners recently even tried to use Olympic participation as a carrot to reopen the collective bargaining agreement to get more of the pie.
Well, the owners at least know a leech when they see it.
The IOC, which doesn’t ever promote the NHL (it doesn’t even allow the league to show Olympic highlights), needs the players more than the owners need the Olympics.
Of course, the NHL players want to go to the Games. It’s a tremendous honor to be selected to perform for your country in such a visible and high-level event.
But they are professionals, and their first responsibility is to the job that pays their above-average salaries. The Olympics, unfortunately, creates a conflict. If certain owners, like Washington’s Ted Leonsis with superstar wing Alex Ovechkin, want to allow their players to go, that’s their right. Otherwise, the owners have little incentive to lend their product.
It would be one thing if the Games were held in this hemisphere — the 2010 U.S./Canada final in Vancouver will go down as one of the greatest hockey games ever and was watched by 27.6 million people. But the 2018 Games will be in South Korea, which is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone.
Maybe in the future a more compatible city will submit the largest bribe (just kidding, IOC) which will allow the owners to re-think their position. Just because the IOC is saying today that it is done with the NHL doesn’t mean that minds won’t be changed.
The Olympics are, after all, just about money.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1