October 30, 2014

NHL trying to put Olympics on ice

On Saturday morning, fans across America celebrated an absolutely incredible Olympic shootout win over Russia. People across the country woke up early and were rewarded with an amazing game that somehow lived up to all of the hype. Americans cheered and tweeted all day about USA’s incredible victory.

Meanwhile NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sat in his ivory tower, arms crossed, watching disapprovingly as his sport took center stage and NHL players did their sport proud.

Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Saturday’s game shows the absurdity of the NHL’s desire to pull its players from future Olympic participation.

Both Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have expressed the owner’s desire to keep the players out of future Olympic tournaments and the league does have valid concerns. Fans may have had the opportunity to watch Saturday’s game because it landed on the weekend, but except for the few times the Olympics are held in North America, the foreign schedule is not conducive for a large TV audience.

It doesn’t matter how great the games are if no one is watching.

Olympic participation also means a two-to-three week break in the NHL season. That stops the league’s momentum at a time when it is no longer competing with the NFL for an audience. It is hard to bring fans back after such a long break.

There is also the obvious injury concern as players can injure themselves playing in what essentially amount to exhibition games in the NHL’s eyes.

Is it worth risking the health of the league’s best players and the fans’ patience for a tournament that most people won’t even be able to watch?

Given where the next Olympics will be held and how long it took for the NHL to approve player participation in Sochi, there will likely be a real fight for the players to represent their national teams in four years.

When the NHL first hinted its displeasure with the Olympics, Alex Ovechkin made it clear he was going to Sochi regardless, saying he would go even if the season did not pause for an Olympic break. The 2018 Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It is doubtful he will make same threat then.

The real fight for the future of NHL Olympic participation is going to be for Pyeongchang. With so many Canadian stars, the NHL would have had a hard time keeping the players out of Vancouver four years ago and the same goes for Sochi.

There aren’t any South Korean superstars in the NHL. While representing one’s country is always important, Pyeongchang just will not carry the same importance as either Vancouver or Sochi.

That doesn’t mean, however, that players won’t fight to play in the Olympics. Despite what the NHL may think, ending their Olympics participation would be bad for the sport and for business.

The NHL season grinds to a halt every year already for an All-Star event that many fans really do not care about. Though the All-Star break is not as long as the Olympic break, there is no question that Olympic hockey generates more interest among fans than the All-Star game.

The NHL is also underestimating the world-wide importance of the Olympics to European players. As the KHL continues to rise in prominence and popularity, it is foolish for the NHL to deny players the chance to represent their native countries.

Alex Ovechkin is one of the faces of the Sochi Olympics because that’s how important this hockey tournament is. Eventually, the Winter Olympics will return to Europe and every European player in the league will want to represent their countries in front of their friends and families.

With the ‘defection’ of superstar Ilya Kovalchuk back to Russia and the KHL, is it really smart to give the KHL another major advantage in terms of convincing European players to stay?

How about an example that hits closer to home for Caps fans. Evgeny Kuznetsov appears to finally be ready to make his NHL debut after the conclusion of the KHL season. As he watches the Sochi Olympics, you can bet there are people in his ear telling him he may never represent Russia in the Olympics if the NHL has its way.

For many players trying to decide between the NHL and KHL, the Olympics could tip the balance just a little more towards the KHL.

The NHL of course isn’t saying that players can’t represent their countries. “I’m very much a believer in the World Cup,” said Bettman during a Q&A with TSN’s Gord Miller. “I think they’re great. Doing it at a time of year in places that we can control makes a whole lot more sense for us in terms of what we try to accomplish as the NHL. And we think it’s good for international hockey as well.”

But while a world cup may solve the problem for the NHL, the NHL seems to be assuming other leagues would follow suite. Why would the KHL throw its support behind the NHL’s Olympic alternative? Any NHL-backed tournament would likely be held more frequently in North America in order to benefit the NHL’s audience.

So here’s the choice the KHL faces. They can continue to allow their players to play in an already established, popular tournament that all their players want to play in and watch as the NHL withdraws its players allowing the European teams to dominate. They can then use Olympic participation as a recruiting tool for all players considering leaving for the NHL.

Or the KHL could help the NHL with its World Cup idea that would be organized in a way that best suits the NHL.

Hmm, where’s the benefit for the KHL?

The NHL is squaring itself up for a fight with its players that will benefit a major competitor in the KHL. It’s hard to take the NHL seriously as they cite player safety when international hockey is played on a wider rink and does not allow fighting. This is strictly a business decision and it is the wrong one.

The benefits of Olympic participation, though limited, are clear in the wake of such great hockey like fans were treated to on Saturday. Abandoning the Olympics for a World Cup the rest of the world has little reason to care about is just bad business.

About J.J. Regan

JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow JJ on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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