World Hockey Summit Day 3: The NHL vs the Olympics

The big topic of debate in the global hockey world lately has been around whether NHL superstars will be at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. After today’s discussions a few things have come to light:

1. Rene Fasel says he will wait as long as it takes for the NHL to make a decision to participate in the Olympics.
2. Gary Bettman reinforces the fact that his lack of decision to attend the Olympics does not mean he has decided not to attend the 2014 games in Russia
3. Brian Burke going off the wall will never ever get old.

As a fan taking the media’s opinion on something can be very dangerous and on an issue like this it’s extremely interesting to get the insight and opinion on a situation so controversial from the most influential thought leaders in the world of hockey. With names like Burke, Medvedev, Fasel, Fetisov, Kreuger, Daly and Bettman all chiming in on the issue of NHL players at the Olympics there was resounding message they all had in common: They all want to have NHL Players at the Olympic games. Whether that is feasible is another issue altogether.

The message from the NHL and it’s ambassadors Bettman, Daly, Burke and Holland amongst others was simple. The NHL hasn’t said no yet, the NHL would like to send it’s members, and with a few compromises between the IOC and the NHL there is every possibility in the world to make that happen. The thing we cannot lose sight of in all of this however is that hockey is a business. As fans we take the entertainment, we take the sport and we take the hockey and forget that there is someone right at the top that is making or losing money on the product we see displayed on the ice.

That said there are a few things to keep in mind before going forward:

1. Players that play at the Olympics get no compensation. At the 2010 Olympics they were given $1000 and a plane ticket for them to bring a spouse or family member over.
2. The NHL had to give up 140 of it’s best players for two weeks with salaries totaling over 2 billion dollars.
3. The decision to send NHL players to the Olympic games is not Gary Bettman’s. The decision is that of the NHL’s Board of Governors which amongst others is comprised of the 30 NHL team owners.
4. The Vancouver Olympics were the perfect storm.
5. We can sit and debate this all day but at the end of it all things are easier said than done.

Three things were pretty resounding coming out of the discussion around sending NHL players to the Olympics: For the state of the game it is necessary to send the best players to play the best players, you cannot generalize the effect of players attending the Olympics across all teams, and the owners of the NHL are the deciding factor at the end of the day. For Canada, hockey is easily the most popular sport and a two-week break from the NHL is of no consequence to that team’s revenue or local city’s interest in the team. Brian Burke also alluded to his Toronto Maple Leafs saying that there weren’t affected by the games at all. Burke then also shed light to the fact that the two week break had a big effect on his former team the Anaheim Ducks. He specifically mentioned that the team noticed significant loss in interest from the fans after the sport disappeared for two weeks. As an owner of an NHL team if your team doesn’t make the playoffs that could make or break your season financially.

Another concern always raised is the chance of a player getting injured at the Olympics. Igor Kuperman was cheeky in a lot of his comments on the situation but Ken Holland made it easy to sympathize with his side when he explained that when Steve Yzerman played through an injury in the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002 doing so meant he didn’t play a single regular season game after the games and had to be on severe pain killers to play in the Olympics for Detroit. He said this year Holmstrom had a similar bone on bone knee injury which required attention and his decision to withdraw from the Olympics allowed him to play out the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. He also pointed out how that in 2002 losing a player due to injury or fatigue wasn’t a big deal, the winged wheel was flying high. Having players come back fatigued after the 2010 Olympics when you’re sitting in 9th place 2 points out of the playoff spot is a completely different situation which as a GM and owner makes you reluctant to send your players to the grandest of international stages.

The feel at today’s summit meetings were very much filled with tension. The European representatives were very adamant that NHL players needed to be at the games and NHLPA representatives Daniel Alfredsson and Jamie Langenbrunner reinforced that the players wanted to be there. The business side of the game continues to pre-occupy the decision makers in this big issue with solutions of revenue sharing from Olympic hockey profits being offered as a potential solution. At the end of the day the impact of the Olympics on teams is different. Some teams like the Canucks see as many as seven of their players attend and other teams send only one or two players. Ken Holland did tell us that of the thirty owners in the NHL the split for and against was pretty even seeing about 10 owners for them, 10 against them and another 10 that are sitting on the fence.

There’s a lot of time between now and 2014 and if Fasel is ready to wait for Bettman and Bettman is ready to take his time only time will tell. Two things are sure and one is that there will definitely be a decision by 2013 as Bettman said owners need an entire year to plan ahead for the impact that the Olympics will have on their team. The other is Ovechkin and Malkin are going to be in Sochi regardless of the NHL’s decision. They made that clear when the issue first arose and I think you’ll find players of all nationalities abandoning their contractual obligations for two weeks to don their national sweaters with pride.

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