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.
Saturday, February 8, 2014