It’s not difficult to pick up the breadcrumb trail National Hockey League owners are following at this stage.
They own half the World Cup in a time when best-on-best hockey on the North American stage is about to grow in both interest and profitability. Controlling the rights to a tournament that will feature Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane leading Team USA against Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby’s Team Canada is an automatic win for both the league and players’ association.
Imagine a true best-on-best World Cup with a two-out-of-three championship round. Imagine owning this stage with no true competitor. Now imagine Matthews and Team USA facing McDavid and Team Canada on prime time for three nights.
If the NHL elects to forgo Olympic participation in 2018, they should hold a World Cup that year to immediately begin taking advantage of its two new superstars as well as the soon-to-be waning primes of Crosby and Kane.
There’s a reason the Canada Cup and the World Cup used to matter more than any other international hockey tournament in the eyes of North American fans. It was the only place to truly see best-on-best.
The ascendance of Matthews and McDavid juices the marketability of USA versus Canada. Why give that matchup to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for free and allow the Olympics to erode the value of the World Cup? Why indeed, NHL owners must be asking.
It has taken decades for Gary Bettman to marshal the power and influence he currently wields. It’s a power that has allowed him to modernize and monetize the NHL. For a consensus-builder like Bettman, the ability to sway his constituents in one direction or another is his most valuable asset. Diluting that power for lost causes isn’t in the best interest of the commissioner’s office or the league.
So don’t expect Bettman to put NHL player participation at the 2018 Olympics to a vote unless there is a major shift in the current landscape. The climate at the board level remains negative on the topic of disrupting the NHL regular season schedule for an event that has limited tangible benefit from an ownership perspective.
Not enough owners want to send their players to South Korea. Having the IIHF pick up the costs rather than the IOC isn’t a big enough carrot. The owners weren’t paying either way, so it matters little to them which body picks up the tab.
Bettman has publicly said the NHL isn’t interested in “paying for the privilege,” to have its players take part in the Olympics, which isn’t the same as saying they’ll go if someone else pays.
IIHF president Rene Fasel has stated the federation will cover costs previously picked up by the IOC to bring NHL players to the Olympics. Travel, insurance, family housing etc., which are believed to add up to close to $20 million, have been on the IOC’s tab since NHL players began skating at the Olympics and turning hockey into a marquee event at the Winter Games. When the IOC told the NHL and NHLPA they were no longer interested in writing the cheque, Fasel stepped in and said his organization would find the money.
To date, Fasel has not put that promise down on paper. Both the league and players’ association await documentation that is believed to be coming in the next few weeks. That will satisfy the NHLPA’s requirements on this file, but not the NHL’s.
Ownership has begun to take a decidedly “What’s in it for us?” view on international hockey, which could spell the end of NHL player participation in the Olympics.
Gary Lawless, tsn.ca