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.