Why the NHL needs to be in the Games

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can think of a lot of reasons why his league should not participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Why the NHL needs to be in the Games

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can think of a lot of reasons why his league should not participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia. Most fans can probably think of only one reason why it should—it would be great fun to watch. That lopsided score is bad for hockey.

In a meeting with Maclean’s editorial board late last year, Bettman put forth a comprehensively gloomy view on the prospects for NHL participation beyond the Vancouver Olympics this month.

February is a problematic month for the league, Bettman noted: “We’re about to hit the stretch runs. Teams are firing on all cylinders.” The Olympic break, he claimed, diminishes playoff momentum. Olympic rosters can have a significant impact on some teams, with the possibility of injury or fatigue. Flying time to Russia is another problem, as is the time difference. And Bettman said some owners, likely those in unprofitable southern U.S. cities (although he wasn’t specific), complain that for the NHL to “go dark” for two weeks reduces interest in hockey.

While Bettman demanded credit for past NHL participation in the Olympics (“I’m the one that did that”) and claimed not to have made up his mind about Sochi, his lengthy list of negatives left a distinct impression. Even Team Canada star Sidney Crosby admits the prospect that this could be his only Olympics, which hangs uncomfortably over Vancouver.

So what would Bettman prefer? His first choice would seem to involve hockey joining the Summer Olympics. Failing that, the games should be held exclusively in time zones convenient to North America. Neither is a practical option. The NHL has tried to promote its World Cup of Hockey as an alternative, but this occasional, summertime event has never captured the imagination of hockey fans in the manner of the Olympics.

The real question Bettman should be asking himself: what’s best for hockey?

The answer is fairly simple. Real hockey fans get enormously excited about seeing the best players in the world compete for their home countries. If interest in hockey wanes in some cities during the Olympic break, that suggests a local absence of passion for the sport, which is a whole different problem. Besides, the players themselves want to be in the Olympics.

It’s true that Olympic participation presents challenges for the NHL not faced by other professional sports leagues. But it is the unique international flavour of the NHL that makes Olympic hockey so compelling. Remember, the NHL now opens its regular season in Europe. The Olympics should thus be seen as a logical extension of this outreach effort. As the premier world event for winter sports, hockey cannot afford to sit out the 2014 Olympics.

Now it is possible Bettman is talking down future Olympics as a way to strengthen his hand in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement next year. If so, he should be careful with his bluff. Keeping the best hockey players at home in 2014 will erode his efforts to build hockey interest around the world—and leave fans in Canada feeling cheated once again.




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Why the NHL needs to be in the Games

  1. Hockey must be in the Olympics. It defines the Winter Games like no other sport. The fact that Bettman doesn’t get that is just another sign that he’s the wrong man for the job.
    I say if Bettman keeps the NHL out of the 2014 Games the players (who have a union, after all) should simply perform a walk-out, refuse to play during the Olympics, maybe even go as a collective over to Sochi to watch the Games there and to send a powerful message to Bettman that this is the People’s game.
    Could you imagine how mad Ovie would be if some Yank told him he couldn’t compete for his Mother Russia when the whole world is watching? If Bettman pushed this too far, you could see an exodus of Russian players going back to the KHL for the stretch.
    We can’t afford to lose our best players to Bettman’s egotistical whims. If southern states ‘lose interest’ because of the Olympics that’s just further proof that the whole Sunbelt Project is a boneheaded one.

  2. Hockey should be in the olympics yes, but the NHL should not. Its an unfair advantage having professional athletes who get paid MILLIONS of dollars and play or train day in and day out. In 10-15 years time all sports will be dominated by these professionals and the olympics will become more of a joke than it already is.

    • You have to be kidding right? In this day of elite sport to say that there anyone that is at the olympics is not a professional athlete is ludicrous. People who want to be there make the sacrifices to be there. There is no such thing as an ameteur sportsman at elite levels and all athletes get compensated financially for what they do even if it is in kind. To say that one nation has an unfair advantage because they have more professional players simply states that that team is the better team. This is not rocket science this is sport at that highest level. I do not see that as a bad thing on the contrary it is fantastic, may the best support team always win! Go Canada.

  3. Hockey should be in the olympics yes, but the NHL should not. Its an unfair advantage having professional athletes who get paid MILLIONS of dollars and play or train day in and day out. In 10-15 years time all sports will be dominated by these professionals and the olympics will become more of a joke than it already is.

  4. What people are missing is that the Olympics are more of a business than a celebration of the best athletes anymore. Billions of dollars spent to host the games, and no compensation for the companys who are lending there multi millions dollar assets to an event which does not protect its athletes. Face it the Olympics are big business and the NHL does not benefit from player participation. Do I want to see the absolute best player participate, Yes, but not at the expense of the teams who actually pay there salaries. For instance what happens if Ovechkin gets clocked by an eager player and sits out a year or 2 with a major injury. How does the Olympics compensate Washington which is a favorite for the cup this year. Vise versa with Crosby, Gaborik, Loungo, Iginla, Heatley, Thorton etc etc etc.

  5. I used to think the NHL had to be in the Olympics for that very reason – it's best for hockey. But after watching the World Juniors the past few years, I'm not sure. It's been fantastic hockey. Those kids can put on a show and are closer to what the Olympics should be about.

    On the other hand Russia is a hockey country, and if we get NHL-level hockey in the Olympics then shouldn't Russian fans get the same thing?

  6. Any hockey fan over 35 remembers all to well the days when "the communist bloc" countries-for the most part (save the U.S's 1980 "Miracle on ice")-ruled the Olympic hockey word thanks to their "amateurs"-taking NHLer's out of the picture would backfire massively-especially if the KHL continued to free up their players as no doubt they would,especially considering the media reports today that a major Russian political party wants "heads to roll" considering their "poor showing" thus far in Vancouver…Hockey is a major draw for North Americans especially to the Olympics in general.To go back to the days of sending NHL cast-offs,has-beens and never-was(es) won't set particularly well with Hockey Fans in Canada,the U.S and the Nordic Countries(Sweden & Finland) as well.I'm thinking Bettman's motivation is more over concern about injuries perhaps.I personally don't recall any loss of momentum or fan interest due to the Olympics.

  7. Bettman has never understood the game of hockey, and still doesn't. Early in his career he had no appreciation for Canadian teams and we lost teams in Winnipeg & Quebec City. Before he wised up, we almost lost Edmonton & Calgary.

    His lack of appreciation of the Olympics is further proof of his ignorance.

    His business acumen is also questionable with failing franchises in the sunbelt, and the US TV contract being awarded to Versus, a channel not widely available.

    The Phoenix Coyotes debacle further demonstrates his lack of business skills, while it does reveal just how strong his control is over the owners.

    No wonder some call him the Poison Dwarf. (I prefer the Tiny Little Commissioner)

  8. The next winter Olympics are in Russia, so this is actually about getting a deal between the KHL and the NHL. All the other issues are minor.

  9. If the NHL wants out of the Olympics they will only make it easier for us here in Europe to finally have a strong and large European League. Right now great players from Europe go to the NHL because that is where they can earn a lot. Former eastern Soviet states have the KHL. Europe with Russia wants to build up a European League. This European League is something that NHL wants to control but with their present attitude, the European's love for the World Cup and the Olympics, as well as the fact that we do not need the NHL to build a successful League they won't get far here in Europe. When Europe has it's own game going players will not need the high pay in the NHL so the quality of European's playing there will lessen. At that time either the NHL will finally smarten up or I suppose Canada who loves to watch great games and are already dissatisfied with the NHL, will make sure that they are playing with high level players in the World Cup and Olympics at the expense of the NHL.

  10. Now NBC Sports has entered this debate with a scathing evaluation of Bettmann's shortcomings (no pun intended) and lack of understanding of the game of hockey and professional sports in the USA.

  11. Thanks Stephan thanks for your valuable comment.

    If the NHL wants out of the Olympics they will only make it easier for us here in Europe to finally have a strong and large European League. Right now great players from Europe go to the NHL because that is where they can earn a lot. Former eastern Soviet states have the KHL. Europe with Russia wants to build up a European League. This European League is something that NHL wants to control but with their present attitude, the European's love for the World Cup and the Olympics, as well as the fact that we do not need the NHL to build a successful League they won't get far here in Europe. When Europe has it's own game going players will not need the high pay in the NHL so the quality of European's playing there will lessen. At that time either the NHL will finally smarten up or I suppose Canada who loves to watch great games and are already dissatisfied with the NHL, will make sure that they are playing with high level players in the World Cup and Olympics at the expense of the NHL.

  12. Olympic rosters can have a significant impact on some teams, with the possibility of injury or fatigue. Flying time to Russia is another problem, as is the time difference. And Bettman said some owners, likely those in unprofitable southern U.S. cities (although he wasn't specific), complain that for the NHL to “go dark” for two weeks reduces interest in hockey.

    Really shocking.

  13. The answer is fairly simple. Real hockey fans get enormously excited about seeing the best players in the world compete for their home countries. If interest in hockey wanes in some cities during the Olympic break, that suggests a local absence of passion for the sport, which is a whole different problem. Besides, the players themselves want to be in the Olympics.

    I very much agree with you.

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