By Steve Silverman
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Gary Bettman loves to beat the drum for the sport of hockey whenever he is forced to go in front of the cameras and speak up for his sport.
The NHL commissioner knows how to say the right things, but he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His interests are not about the good of the game, the good of the players or even the long-term future for the owners who keep him employed.
It’s always about the money. If it’s not going to impact the bottom line of the NHL positively, Bettman couldn’t care less.
Those are what his actions say, and that has been underscored by the two major work stoppages that he has overseen (the full season of 2004-05 and the partial season of 2012-13).
But ruining hockey apparently is not enough for Bettman. Now he wants to ruin the Winter Olympics.
After months of hemming and hawing, Bettman said Tuesday that it’s time to presume that NHL players won’t be participating in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
He did not shut the door completely with an official declaration, but that is just around the corner. This is a typical Bettman move, and it will throw his sport for a loop and almost certainly have long-term implications on labor relations with players who will resent the opportunity being taken away from them.
There is little doubt that the hockey is the highlight of the Winter Olympics, with women’s figure skating the only other event that comes close to rivaling it when it comes to North American viewer interest.
Alpine skiing, bobsledding and speed skating have some appeal, but represent only a curiosity to many/ It’s Olympic hockey that drives this quadrennial event.
The greatest upset in the history of major sports is widely acknowledged to be the 1980 U.S. Olympic victory over the Soviet Union, and the ripples from the “Miracle on Ice” have been felt for generations.
It took a while, but the NHL got in on the Olympic fever in 1998 and started sending its best players to the worldwide event.
While the regular season schedule was interrupted, it gave hockey fans a chance to see players from competing teams join forces and compete for their countries. NHL players have participated in the four Winter Olympics that have followed (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014).
Is it as important as the Stanley Cup? It may very well be, if you listen to Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who led the Detroit Red Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup and Canada to gold medal Olympic victories in 2010 and 2014.
“Playing for the Stanley Cup is something you dream about,” Babcock said. “Playing for your country in the Olympics, best on best, there’s no better event. There is none. To have that opportunity to showcase your game every year, not to pick and choose when it’s your turn, I think is important. But I don’t own any teams.”
Babcock speaks well for his sport, as well as Canadian and American fans when it comes to the importance and excitement of Olympic hockey.
Bettman was trying to lay the groundwork for the NHL’s nonparticipation in the event during the World Cup of Hockey last fall when he called it better competition than the Olympics.
Olympic hockey will be a mere shell of itself if NHL players are not competing for the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Instead of shutting down the sport for three weeks so his elite players can participate, Bettman will put his head in the sand and continue with the regular season schedule next year. His players will be left to answer for this bonehead move because media members will be asking about it as the Olympic unfold. Bettman will tuck himself away in the corporate office and issue platitudes.
However, what happens if his players revolt? Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has said he will play for the Russian team no matter what the league decides to do. If Ovechkin plays for his country, won’t the Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby feel the same pressure to play for Canada and Chicago’s Patrick Kane for the United States?
If the elite superstars go, they will lead others as well.
Bettman may not care about that possibility in March 2017, but he will definitely care in February 2018.
It will be a black eye for his sport and for the Winter Olympics. Hockey and the Winter Olympics go hand in hand, but because there is no immediate financial gratification to the NHL coffers, Bettman wants to thumb his nose at the event.
He is hurting his sport, and he is doing his part to ruin the Winter Olympics.
Bettman is supposed to be the NHL’s leader, but he is a short-sighted man who looks down his nose at anything that doesn’t bring immediate gratification.
He has outlived his usefulness as the commissioner.
It’s time for him to go.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy