A real game changer

Will the NHL let its players compete in the next Winter Games?

A real game changer

Imagine for a moment that we went back to the old way of doing things. Instead of getting jacked up this week about a potential gold medal showdown between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, hockey fans would be making do with—let’s see—Alexandre Giroux and Sergei Mozyakin. Both are respectable journeymen: Giroux is a 28-year-old Canadian who ranks among the top American Hockey League scorers; Mozyakin, also 28, stars with Atlant Moscow in Russia’s Kontinental League. But potential protagonists in a future Olympic rivalry? Not quite.

Avert your eyes, puck fans, because as the world’s best players descend on Vancouver this week, your most absurd imaginings are becoming Olympic hockey’s fallback plan. For months, NHL executives have been grumbling about the squeeze the Games put on their schedules and exposing top players to the risk of injury at a tournament that brings them no money. While many observers dismiss their gripes as empty posturing, the tenor of the rhetoric is starting to worry some players. Crosby, for one, wondered aloud a few months ago whether this tournament might be his only chance to play in the Olympics. Ovechkin has promised to play at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, regardless of whether his NHL masters forbid it. “Nobody can say to me you can’t play for your country,” the Washington Capitals star told reporters last fall.

It’s been 14 years since the NHL climbed aboard the Olympic juggernaut, and the euphoria of that moment now seems a distant memory. Back then, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke glowingly of worldwide TV exposure and opportunities to “grow the game” by having the players participate in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. Nowadays Bettman worries more about keeping the game alive in Tampa Bay, and he can tire the ears with lamentations about time-zone differences and epic flights to Olympic locales. In an interview with Maclean’s last November, he ticked off the disadvantages, from the break in momentum it imposes on the NHL season, to the mediocre TV audiences some Olympics get in markets where the NHL is trying to expand its following. All of the matches played in Sochi, he tersely noted, will occur between 4 a.m. and 2 p.m. in eastern North America. “You tell me,” he said, “is that worth it? To shut down and impact, potentially, your whole season?”

Bettman denies the NHL is seeking money, such as a cut of the revenue flowing from broadcast contracts and licensed Olympic merchandise. And he takes pains to point out that the league has not yet ruled out going to Sochi. Still, the tide of negative rhetoric coming from the NHL’s New York headquarters has officials with the International Ice Hockey Federation—who organize and derive income from Olympic hockey—wondering whether the owners have already made up their minds. Or what they might do to keep the big league on board. “If it’s not about money, the NHL should say what the issue is,” said IIHF chief René Fasel in an email to Maclean’s. “Then we can discuss.”

Certainly the league can make a strong case for a more favourable financial arrangement. The arrival of pros in the Olympic hockey tournament, after all, stoked interest in the Winter Games far beyond pre-1998 levels, culminating in a 23-million-strong U.S. television audience for the gold medal game between Canada and the U.S. at Salt Lake City in 2002—the biggest for a hockey game since the American team’s “Miracle on Ice” win of 1980. Between the 1998 and 2010 Games, U.S. broadcast rights alone for the Winter Olympics have climbed from $375 million to just under $1 billion (Canada’s broadcasting consortium paid $90 million for Vancouver-Whistler, up from $16 million in 1998).

Unfortunately for the NHL, the IOC has never operated as a strict meritocracy, with the top-drawing sports getting the biggest cut of the spoils. Under its arcane rules, revenues are shared among all the national Olympic committees, plus the international federations whose sports are represented. In practice, this means hockey is less a cash cow than a milk cow: after the 2006 Olympics in Turin, the IIHF says it received a paltry $35 million to distribute among seven national hockey federations—$5 million less than the minimum payroll of one NHL team.

Nor is the IOC likely to fulfill the NHL’s wish to be able to promote its participation in the Games more aggressively. The IOC zealously restricts use of its five-ring logo and advertising space at the Games to maximize value for its paying sponsors. And while IOC president Jacques Rogge has publicly urged the NHL to stay in the Olympic family, at least one international hockey official familiar with IOC practices told Maclean’s that it would be “completely unprecedented” for the committee to bend its policies for the sake of one league.

Suffice to say, the league’s rigid stance is playing into long-standing perceptions of it as short-sighted and indifferent to the grassroots federations that supply its talent. The Olympics, says Fasel pointedly, offer NHL players a rare opportunity to pay back their national federations whose development programs made them successful and wealthy. “Without this system, the NHL would not get the well-trained players they receive every year from our member nations,” he says (NHL representatives did not respond to an interview request).

The dispute has also placed the league on a collision course with the players—and not just wild-eyed patriots like Ovechkin. A decision on whether to go to Sochi must be negotiated in the next round of collective bargaining between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. While the union is still emerging from a nasty internal power struggle, overwhelming support for Olympic participation is one thing it seems sure of. “The fans, the media, the IOC, the International Ice Hockey Federation, their member federations, the Olympic broadcasters and the players—every one of these groups wants to see NHL players in the Olympics,” says spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon. “We think they’ll see that the positives outweigh the negatives.”

And if they don’t? They’ll be reversing one of the greatest advances the Winter Games have seen since they began in 1924, not to mention abandoning a lot of hard-won fans. That Giroux-Mozyakin rivalry better be good.