Sochi, Pyeongchang and hating on the Games

Look out, Korea: an NHL owner’s rant against the Olympics didn’t come out of nowhere

Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton lets a goal through.

Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michael Leighton lets a goal through.

I know you feel sorry for Ed Snider—agreeable fellow that he is. But while you’re weeping and rending garments on behalf of the Philadelphia Flyers’ owner, reserve a bit of sympathy for Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The host city of the 2018 Winter Games, after all, will be first to suffer if the anti-Olympic sentiment voiced by Snider signals some sort of movement among NHL owners. And there’s good reason to believe that it does.

But let’s back up.

Snider, if you’ve never heard of him, is one of the NHL’s most powerful owners—chairman of the board of governors, executive committee member, pretty much at the hub of commissioner Gary Bettman’s inner circle. He’s never been one to suppress his frustration, and on Friday, he uncorked not just on the Sochi Games but on the whole idea of the NHL going dark for three weeks while its players engage in that quaint practice of representing one’s country.

“I hate them,” he said, referring to the Olympics. “It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t care if it was in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t want to break up the league [schedule]. I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off, or however long it is, in the middle of the season. It screws up everything. How can anybody be happy breaking up their season. No other league does it, why should we? There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”

Snider’s reputation for sounding off might explain why his comments went mostly unremarked here in Sochi (it helped that most NHL players and coaches have yet to arrive). But even the tough-talking 81-year-old would hardly voice outright hatred for the Olympics without a certain amount of confidence his views are shared by those who matter to him. Which is to say: other owners and Bettman.

The irony here is that it was Bettman et al who opened the Olympic can of worms to begin with, releasing players to Nagano in 1998 on the belief that showcasing the NHL product would lead to a better TV deal in the United States. Well, guess what? The players liked it. No, wait. They loved it. It made them feel good to play for something bigger than their fat paychecks and the financial welfare of their wealthy bosses. For once, they weren’t overpaid brats, but patriots and warriors playing their hearts out for their countries.

The owners? Well, they’ve been complaining about it ever since, grudgingly agreeing to Olympic breaks only because they needed to mend fences with fans after lockouts. Or because they had bigger fish to fry during collective bargaining.

The “no benefit” part of Snider’s rant is important. The NHL labours under the belief it should be the only professional league to get a share in Olympic revenue. There were hints after the 2010 Games in Vancouver that there’d be an asking price for Sochi, and never mind that proceeds from the Olympic tournament go to national federations to help grow the game at the grassroots level. Evidently, that was just too great a sacrifice for the billionaires and corporate giants who own NHL teams to make.

But this isn’t just about money. The recurring threat to pull out—to deprive the Games of its feature attraction—is about control of the game at its highest level, epitomizing the league’s assumption that it owns not only the players but hockey itself. What a shock it must have been five years ago when Alex Ovechkin and other Russian stars made it clear they would defy the NHL if it told them they couldn’t play in Sochi. It was as if they had their own ideas.

The league avoided that crisis, pencilling the deal to come to Russia into the collective agreement that ended the lockout. But judging from Snider’s tone, the owners are not exactly chastened, which brings us to the plight of Pyeongchang.

The chance the NHL will snub poor Korea now seem high—much higher than was the case with Sochi. Travel times for players would be as long as they are to get to Russia, meaning the break in the NHL schedule might even have to be longer. And there’s not exactly a critical mass of Korean-born NHLers to raise an insurrection.

About the only silver lining for Olympic fans is NBC’s control of U.S. TV rights to Olympics; they’ve also paid big for the rights to NHL hockey, and network execs might lean on the league to play nice with the IOC. Yet even that’s open to question: The time difference between Korea and the eastern U.S. is 14 hours, meaning game played in prime-time in Pyeongchang would catch only garbagemen and  homeward-bound night-clubbers in the United States. So the downside to the network to writing off the Olympic men’s hockey tournament this time around won’t be nearly so punishing as in the past.

Yes, we’re deep into speculation here. And a lot can happen in the meantime. But one thing seems sure: you’ll be hearing a lot more of from Snider and the other owners on this topic over the next three years, at about the same volume. It’s not their party, and that’s why they’re crying.

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Sochi, Pyeongchang and hating on the Games

  1. A lot of whining, complaining and sour grapes about the Russian Olympics in everything. How very petty everyone is being.

    • The article is about the next Olympics, in Korea. Not the current Olympics, in Russia. Please try and read before replying. I know it is difficult.

      • Yup….hating on the games. Something we’re very good at. Hockey is only a part of it….I contributed a vid about the topic in general.

        Why can’t you folks make any connections?

        As to hockey and Sochi….’What a shock it must have been five years ago when Alex Ovechkin and other Russian stars made it clear they would defy the NHL if it told them they couldn’t play in Sochi. It was as if they had their own ideas.’

        • That line about Ovechkin and the Sochi Olympics isn’t whining or sour grapes about the Sochi Olympics, it’s a CELEBRATION of the IMPORTANCE of the Sochi Olympics to Ovechkin and his compatriots.

          My reading is that Gillis is COMPLIMENTING Ovechkin’s willingness to tell the NHL to stuff it, and that he was going to his home country’s Olympics whether they liked it or not. I don’t read it as “whining”, I read it as applause.

          • The vid I posted is about the west whining about, and finding fault with, the Russian olympics.

      • Not just next Olympic. Read the article again and notice that this guy hates Olympic hockey. Sorry, people like it, hockey fans like it and most players like it. Cry me a river.

  2. He’s wrong that the NHL did not benefit.

    Pro hockey is the favourite sport of 5% of Americans. It was 3% in 1998. It was 2% in 1985. In 1998, pro basketball, auto racing and college football were at 11, 10%. Now it’s 6 and 7%.

    In fact, of the 22 sports on the list, pro hockey is second to only pro football in increased popularity from 1985 to 2012.

    So hockey has nearly surpassed auto racing and pro basketball in America. The fact that team USA won silver in 2002 and 2010 had a lot to do with hockey’s increased popularity. This has led to increased revenues for the NHL. Many NHL teams were once in poor shape, now only a couple are not thriving.

    I don’t even think the poll tells the whole story, because the NFL and MLB will always be the favourites of many. I’ll bet if the poll asked a different question, if they asked American sports fan if they follow the NHL, the change would be striking. The huge popularity of hockey at the winter olympics has been a big reason. Hockey is by far the most popular event of the winter olympics, which is a huge sports event worldwide. The olympics showcase the global popularity of hockey, and they also showcase that the USA is a perennial contender. NHL stars are seen as national sports heros for their respective countries. All of this benefits the NHL.

    Bettman was right. Snider is blind.

    • Hear hear, the NHL likes it too! Snider is a loser.

      • I suspect Snider has a particular problem because he’s an Ayn Rand disciple, and so nationalistic, quasi-governmental competitions don’t have a lot of interest for him anyway. That being said, he’s not the only one I’ve heard this sort of complaint from, so clearly the stupid has spread throughout the NHL.

        It is also an oversimplification to say that Snider “owns” the Flyers; he is the chairman of the holding company that owns the team, which in turn is really controlled by Comcast. Speaking as a Flyers fan, I wish Comcast would put him out to pasture (if legally possible), because he and the management he has put in place over the years are still stuck in the “Broad Street Bullies” days, which has kept them from getting over the top in the years since.

    • In April of 2012 the NHL was talking about posting 7 straight years of revenue increases. So despite the ’06 and ’10 Olympics revenues kept going up. Could it be in part because sponsors take an interest in hockey and the NHL after these games? Maybe. When you are making the same amount of money in an Olympic year if not more I’m hard pressed to see how this hurts the NHL.

      As well, the Olympics adds prestige to the European games and proposed tournaments the NHL wants to start producing. Never mind what continued Olympic participation would do for World Cup.

      If I’m a player who likes the Olympic break – either as a break or to go play – I’m refusing to play in a World Cup that cuts into my time off.

    • Put differently, what are the markets the NHL is trying to appeal to?
      Canada: It’s their sport, and they definitely want to compete on the biggest stage with their best players. There was a lot of frustration in Canada in the “amateur” days because the Russians could essentially play professionals (under the cover of it being a “military” team) while the Canadians couldn’t; Canada even boycotted Olympic hockey for a while over this. Does the NHL want to be responsible for taking us back to those days?
      USA: There is no question that Americans look at the Olympics as the gold standard (pun intended :-)) of international competition. I completely agree with scf that it is not a coincidence that hockey’s popularity has grown in the US since pros went to the Olympics. Again, does the NHL really want to give that up? Also, as the article points out, playing nice with your current American TV rights holder is probably a good idea, too.
      The rest of the world: Gee, you think putting your product on the world’s biggest athletic stage helps grow your popularity internationally? :-) Not to mention, if you really want to start competing with other countries’ leagues on their own turf, it might make it easier to not insist on hogging all of the money from the Olympics, but share that money with the other countries instead.

      The stupidest thing about this is that ice hockey is the premiere team “game” in the Olympics right now. All of the best players play (unlike soccer, which FIFA deliberately restricts in order to avoid competing with the World Cup), there are multiple countries that can win (unlike basketball), and it’s held in the middle of the season, when the players are at their best competitive form and when the fans are most interested. But the NHL wants to give this up because they’re not getting all of the money. They always have been the most poorly run of the four major North American leagues.

  3. The argument brought forward by Snider – that a 3-week break is difficult to swallow for the NHL – would garner more sympathy if the Olympics came around more frequently. A break every 4 years is not impossible. It’s planned well in advance, and happens twice (at most three times) a decade.
    Besides, would there really be any tears shed if NHL players were barred from playing in the Olympics? The “no-name” players in the Juniors, and the hockey players in the pre-Nagano Olympics, arguably play better Olympic hockey than the pros. It’s just as entertaining, if not moreso, than the professionals playing at the Olympics.

    • The amateurs only looked better because they had been playing together for months, (years, in the case of the “amateur” Soviets) before the Olympics. This year, the pro teams will have at most two (jet-lagged) days to practice before the tournament starts. If the NHL was smart, they would take a whole *month* off (and if you have to start September 15th and skip the All-star Game, who cares?), which would give the teams two weeks to practice together and allow enough time to have a real group round in the actual tournament. Do that and nobody would be confused about who the best players are.

  4. Sniders 81. I’d say the odds of hearing anything from him 4 years from now are 50-50 at best.

  5. If there was only some way the NHL could showcase their best players in front of a huge worldwide TV audience…….

    • Soccer leagues take international breaks two or three times EVERY YEAR for international tournaments and qualifiers. They appear to be doing fairly well.

  6. A lot of soccer / football leagues take 3 weeks off during the winter (and more probably should). A little rest and rehab in the middle of a season isn’t such a bad thing. The NHL season doesn’t begin until the playoffs – hasn’t Snider read the memo?

  7. One slight disagreement about this article; while NBC might not be too disappointed if the NHL doesn’t go to Korea, they will be very disappointed if they don’t go to Seattle or Quebec or wherever they are the next time it’s in North America. The problem is, the IOC’s not going to tolerate the NHL being in only when it benefits them. So if NBC plans to continue doing the Olympics in the long term, and they want to have the NHL players in it at all, it’s in their interest to make sure that the pros go every time.

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