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Olympic Ice Hockey

The NHL seems headed for an Olympic exit -- and it's the right move to make

Photo: David E. Klutho/SI

The NHL's relevancy and financial situation has changed dramatically since players like Keith Tkachuk made their Olympic debut at the 1998 Games.

SOCHI – The NHL is not bluffing. The league wants to get out of the Olympics business before the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, and it’s the right move. If I were Gary Bettman, which I blissfully am not, I’d get out of the Olympics business, too.

This will upset people who love watching the best players in the world in the Olympics. I’m one of those people. But the Olympics need the NHL more than the NHL needs the Olympics, and the NHL knows it.

The Winter Olympics are basically a 10-day event that gets stretched into 16 for television purposes, which is why the International Olympic Committee is giving out medals this year to whomever jumps out of a tree and makes the best snow angel without spilling hot chocolate. Hockey is an important component here. The Winter Olympics do not need the world’s premier hockey tournament, but it gives them some credibility.

But what is the NHL getting out of the Olympics? The typical answer usually includes the “growth” and “exposure” and “world stage.” But the NHL has been on the world stage for 16 years, and the league’s growth and exposure in that time has had very little to do with the Olympics.

At a table in an indoor food tent in Olympic Park, I asked NHL vice president Bill Daly what the Olympics bring to the NHL.

“The only thing the Olympics bring are the Olympics,” he said. “The name, the brand, the visibility of the Olympics … which is a big deal. Beyond that, everything is less than ideal.”

I plugged Daly’s comments into my English-to-Spanish translator, and it said, “Adios!”

Oh, sure, nothing is official. The league still has to negotiate the terms of its revived World Cup of Hockey, which will probably launch around September of 2015. It must appease its primary North American television partner, NBC, which also televises the Olympics.

But in the next few months, you can expect the NHL to send NBC executives a box of chocolates and invite them to televise the World Cup on NBC Sports Network and NBC. The World Cup makes a lot more sense than the current Olympic arrangement, which explains why NHL owners have a range of opinions on going to the 2018 Olympics, from “No,” to “Hell no.”

I am exaggerating, but only slightly.

 “If you polled the owners, I’m not sure any of them would really put up their hand and say, ‘We have to do the Olympics,’” Daly said. “Some of them are more amenable to why we do the Olympics, and the benefits – the benefit – that the Olympics bring than others.

“But from an owner’s perspective, they’re looking out for their business, they’re looking out for their team. It’s really primarily disruptive to the season and potentially harmful to their players. So there is not a huge support for Olympic participation.”

The advantages to sending players to the Olympics are mostly theoretical.  How many people really watch Olympic hockey competition and get so hooked that they start following the Wild or the Coyotes?

Pretend you are an owner. If I asked you to stop your season for almost three weeks in February, during the open sports window between the Super Bowl and March Madness, so that your best players could play games in another country, with different coaches, trainers and doctors, for somebody else’s profit, would you do it?

The answer is no, which is why Major League Baseball has never seriously considered stopping its season in August to send players to the Summer Olympics.

I did not always feel this way. Heck, the NHL did not always feel this way. The league would have hired a locksmith to get into the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. But that was a different time and a different NHL.

In 1998, the league had only just planted its flag in a bunch of nontraditional markets in the American south and west. Nobody knew how those franchises would do. But Americans love the Olympics, and many Americans only had one meaningful hockey memory: The 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, when ... (text redacted by Russian government censors).

Well, it’s not 1998 any more. Previously shaky franchises are much more stable. The outdoor games have been a wild financial and marketing success, and the 24/7 series on HBO has given fans a valuable look inside the NHL. League executives know they can sell hockey to a North American audience.

NHL revenues have grown exponentially since its Olympic experiment began. But that is correlation, not causation.

“There’s always going to be a lot of people watching Olympic hockey,” Daly says. “They will be identifying with NHL players. That is the whole purpose of going in the first place. Whether that translates to people coming to our games or having interest in our games after the Olympics, that’s always difficult to measure. We don’t really know.”

It will be easy to paint the NHL as greedy for ditching the Olympics so it can create its own tournament. Well, you wouldn’t call it greed if you were the one getting paid, but anyway, this is not just about money. Really, it isn’t. The NHL is big enough now that it doesn’t need the sacrifice of halting its season two months before it is supposed to end.

A World Cup would be a smoother, easier event, and the NHL and its players' association could control it completely.

 “People say, ‘If the IOC decided to write you a big check, would it make a big difference?’” Daly said. “I’m not sure it necessarily would. I’m not sure the check would be big enough. Again, if you run a tournament and control it and it’s your tournament, there is a lot in the way of tangible benefits that you can really measure that the Olympics don’t bring.”

Players will not be happy about this. The Olympians love the experience and the chance at a medal, and the non-Olympians enjoy their week on the beach in February.

But when union president Donald Fehr worked for baseball players, he helped create the World Baseball Classic, which has been a huge boon to baseball internationally even though people like me have never watched an inning of it. Fehr can convince the players that a World Cup would be good for them (and probably extract some random concessions out of the league because that is Fehr’s job).

The timing is right. The NHL is probably thrilled the 2018 games are in Pyeongchang, South Korea, instead of in Sweden or some other hockey nation. There is no South Korean version of Alex Ovechkin insisting that he would skip an NHL season rather than miss an Olympics in his home country, and South Korea is so far away from the U.S. that it gives the NHL an easy excuse.

At a press conference here on Tuesday before hundreds of Russian cheerleaders dressed as reporters, Ovechkin ducked the 2018 question, saying he wanted to enjoy this Olympics before worrying about the next one. Evgeni Malkin said every player would love to play in the Olympics every four years, and he is probably right.

The league has to show players that representing their country in the World Cup would be meaningful, too. It won’t be as cool as the Olympics, but Bill Daly is right. The only thing the Olympics bring are the Olympics, and the NHL doesn’t need them anymore.

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