The unilateral decision by the NHL — and its owners, make no mistake — to kybosh its players participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has been met with a firestorm of criticism.
From the players, to fans and pundits, Gary Bettman’s announcement in early April isn’t sitting well with anyone other than he and the cabal of owners who no doubt forced the commish’s hand.
Alex Ovechkin was not the lone voice in the wilderness either, as he’s stated he will go anyway, NHL edict be damned. He has the backing of Washington Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis too, which probably earns him contempt from his deep-pocketed brethren.
Connor McDavid, the game’s brightest star, also sounded off before the NHL’s pronouncement, saying that he “couldn’t picture an Olympics without (NHL players) to be honest.”
So, what does all this mean?
For now, the issue is a moot point where Bettman et al are concerned. The commissioner has stated there will be no further conversation about participation.
But what if there were ways the NHL could still send its best and keep everyone (fairly) happy?
Here are our thoughts on what can be done to keep hockey a premier Olympic event.
IOC Makes Concessions To NHL Owners
We’re going to get one thing out of the way right away and say that NHL owners — all 31 of them — are dollars first, hockey second kind of people (other than maybe the late Mike Ilitch, rest his soul). So, if the IOC, also a billion dollar organization convinced of its own grandeur, truly wants NHL participation, they’ve got to pony up to bring the best to their Olympic hockeyfest. The biggest sticking point, again involving cold hard cash, was the IOC’s reluctance — this time around — to pay for the travel, accommodation, and insurance costs for NHL stars to compete. That figure is/was pegged at about $20 million. Without the IOC footing that bill, it made the cost-conscious NHL Board of Governor’s decision an easy one. The IOC, which rakes in billions from sponsorship and media rights, can’t have it both ways, that is having the best hockey players make them even more millions while competing for free. Therefore, the decision can still be reversed and fairly easily if the IOC is willing to shell out. And, as a carrot for owners, who have felt like second class citizens when the attend Olympic hockey games (i.e. having to actually buy their own tickets), the IOC could comp one and all.
Superstar Players Form Lobby To Get NHL To Change Its Stance
If, and when, many of the league’s current superstars have some time, they should form a coalition with former luminaries to actively lobby the league’s owners to reverse their edict. We’re not talking about a Twitter campaign or loose thoughts spewed to a fawning press, but a professionally orchestrated effort. Hashtags are so five minutes ago, so star NHL players, and maybe even its own ineffectual players union, should sit down (even in just a virtual sense) and form a plan to lobby the owners in diplomatic ways. Appealing to their sense of nationalism might be one way, given that not all owners are American. Another could be to heighten the owners awareness that in order to grow the game — especially with the NHL having already considered expansion overseas — the best players have to be at the Olympics. The point here is that if a majority of superstars, from all nationalities represented, come together in unison before the league, they will be awful hard to ignore.
Broadcast Giants Help Break The NHL And IOC Impasse
No stronger group stands to enrich itself via the Winter Olympics exists more than the major networks that have rights cover it. The likes of NBC and CBC in North America, as well as foreign sports broadcast giants like the BBC, CCTV (China), and Discovery Communications (Europe) all stand to profit hugely. What they could do to keep both the NHL and IOC happy is let the two parties know that they too may be willing to bend a little to get NHLers to the rink in Pyeongchang. As discussed above regarding the hefty bill to bring players overseas, the broadcasters, especially NBC and CBC, could help foot the bill for the NHL to participate, while negotiating with the IOC for better broadcast deals down the road for doing so. Just like NHL superstars, even more so, the TV people and their executives are very powerful and their input and/or action on the dilemma would hold a lot of weight.
Players Go On Strike To Get CBA Changes Made Allowing Participation
Even more than forming a coalition of the willing, the players ultimate bargaining chip would be to go on strike in the very near future. Since they were so roundly beaten down by ownership after the last round of negotiations (that led to a 48-game schedule in 2012-13), the players and their union could show some rare resolve and solidarity by hitting the owners where it hurts most, their pocketbook. Forcing the league and the owners mafia to re-negotiate a flawed CBA, which doesn’t allow for Olympic participation, at the players time and choosing could have consequences, but the players could come out smelling like roses. That is, not many fans or media types are siding with ownership right now, so the players’ have the upper hand and should strike while the iron is hot (pardon the pun). It is a pie-in-the-sky idea, a wildcat strike, but the NHL and its Board of Governors have acted only in their own self interest at every turn since Bettman took over. Time for those — and not just the superstars — that put bums in the seats to let their actions do the talking.
NHL Starts Season Earlier To Accommodate Olympics
The official statement backing out of the the 2018 Winter Olympics made much of the fact that the “majority” of clubs, i.e. rich owners didn’t want a three-week break, and it ended thus: “…this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 Regular Season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed.” All that said, all the NHL would have to do is start the NHL season a little earlier (and maybe extend it a touch later) so as not to have games too bunched up (since a compressed schedule has other inherent risks, like injury). The players, for sure, would have no problem with that. What the NHL’s stance shows it that there is a lot of short-sightedness and inflexibility, but, they could go a long way in the public perception department by being a little more amenable and forward-thinking.
The IOC And The NHL Form A Long-Lasting Partnership
Rather then continue to be at odds with one another, the two money-generating giants could bury the hatchet, wherein both could come out win-win for Olympics to come. A partnership, wherein the NHL can use Olympic images (which they aren’t licensed to do) to sell their game globally, and the IOC can cross-promote using NHL approved marketing is quite feasible. Since revenue-sharing and footing costs is such a sticking point, again, both sides need to bend a little to find common ground. Forming a partnership, then, is better for both sides, in which agreements are hashed out and put into a IOC/NHL legal document outlining just who gets what (including when and where). As a wise person once said, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Make Hockey A Summer Olympic Event
Now, this is a stretch, however, hear us out. If the NHL is so intent on not disrupting the cash machine that is their league for three weeks in February, why not lobby the IOC to include it in the Summer Games. Bettman even suggested as much in the wake of the announcement that NHL players wouldn’t be at the 2018 games. While hockey is surely not embraced by the countries who don’t participate in the Winter Games, if the IOC wants to include the NHL participation long term, the Summer event would be a great showcase. There is a win-win, in that the IOC still gets to profit from having the best hockey players in the world helping them generate cash flow, while the NHL gets to market its product to the billions who may have never witnessed the greatest game on earth. The only sticking point is having suitable arenas to play in, depending on just who is hosting. But, building grand edifices for the masses, at great cost, has rarely stopped the IOC from charging forward.
The Players Thumb Their Nose At The NHL And Go Anyway
As we spoke about previously, a wildcat strike to get a clause put into the CBA ensuring NHL participation at the Winter Olympics should be a 100 percent effort, from the elite players to the fourth-liners and back-up goalies. The only other way that a small percentage of them go is for guys like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Auston Matthew, and Connor McDavid to throw caution to the wind and head to Pyeongchang anyway. What are the owners going to do, cut them? We think not. The NHL and the Board of Governors have had their own way for so long, including stopping the game on three occasions in the last 25 years, it’s time for the best in the game to make it a players’ showcase and not a plaything for billionaires. The best representing their countries and telling the owners who’s boss would also honor all the hardship that predecessors like Ted Lindsay had to go through, fighting the league to earn living wages, among other things.