Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Black teenager launches racial justice project in Nova Scotia
Daily fall forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
SaltWire Selects: Our arts and entertainment picks
What you need to know about COVID-19: September 25, 2020
Back on Feb. 10 — five months ago in real time, five decades in COVID-19 time — the IIHF announced it would satisfy the NHL’s concerns over participation in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
This was the response from Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner: “We aren’t there yet. In fact, we aren’t even close to being there. At this point in time we continue to believe that the negatives (regarding the NHL’s involvement) outweigh the positives.”
Three months before, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with NHLPA chief Don Fehr and IIHF president Rene Fasel to discuss the same issue. Here was his response: “I don’t want to sound like a broken record on this subject, but I think going to the Olympics is a challenge for us.
“… From out standpoint we have found going to the Olympics to be incredibly disruptive to our season.”
In case you missed the point, Bettman was asked in February 2018 about the NHL’s decision to back out of the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.
“Based on the overall reaction that Olympics got, I think we’re justified in our decision and comfortable it was the right decision,” he answered.
Hmmm. Seems to be a pattern here.
You can go back further and you get the same thing over and over from the NHL. Never mind that the players, fans and virtually everyone connected with hockey wanted to see best-on-best competition on the biggest stage in global sports. Bettman, Daly and 30 owners viewed it as an inconvenience not worth their time or money.
This past week it was revealed that, as part of a new collective-bargaining agreement with the PA, NHL players would be returning to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026. The CBA was ratified on Friday afternoon and under ordinary circumstances the news about the Olympics would have triggered a tsunami of related stories and overheated reactions. But this development barely registered with the public, largely because it was buried beneath return-to-play protocols, a completely reworked leaguewide business model and any number of other subjects.
So let’s try to correct that.
NHL players aren’t returning to the Olympics because of a blinding moment of clarity from the league or the sudden realization it was best for the game. Don’t be daft.
They’re returning because the players fought for this concession and made it a precondition to signing off on the new CBA. They didn’t gain anything materially from their position. With a salary cap that will be relatively flat until 2023-24, they actually sacrificed a fair bit to gain the Olympics.
But, in using one of the few bargaining chips at their disposal, they’ve performed a great service to the game. NHL players are back in the Olympics and this is a huge win for hockey, its fans and, yes, the league. And, while you’re tempted to see this as the product of a world turned upside down by COVID-19, you could see this coming nine years ago when the Games were awarded to South Korea.
The NHL’s participation in Olympic hockey, to that point, had been a massive win for the game and the league. Forget the mewling about schedule disruption and travel costs. The five Olympics that featured best-on-best produced breathtaking hockey, transcendent moments and a level of excitement unmatched in the NHL’s world.
You can think of any Stanley Cup Final moment over the last 22 years and it doesn’t come close to matching Sidney’s golden goal in Vancouver, Hasek in Nagano, Mario’s swan song in Salt Lake or T.J. Oshie’s shootout artistry in Sochi.
Bettman and his cabal, of course, bitched and moaned every step of the way, but the Olympics provided the league with an exposure it couldn’t access through its traditional existence.
But that changed when the 2018 Games went to Pyeongchang and, looking back, the NHL couldn’t have picked a better time to opt out. They were going to a remote outpost in a time zone 13 hours ahead of the eastern seaboard. IOC president Thomas Bach said his organization wouldn’t cover travel and insurance for the players. The IIHF later stepped up to cover those costs but the league also wanted marketing rights connected to the Olympics.
Add it all up and the NHL’s reluctance seemed justified. Yes, there was grumbling about the final decision to pull out of Pyeongchang but, overall, the reaction was somewhat muted.
Beijing, however, was a different proposition. While the 2022 host city presented a lot of the same challenges as Pyeongchang, it also represented an entrée into the Chinese omni-market and the NHL was desperate to plant its flag in the Orient.
Back in 2017, when the Canucks met the L.A. Kings in the NHL’s first China series, Daly was asked if Beijing changed the league’s position on the Olympics. His answer was telling.
“I think it’s early to make that call. Certainly, Beijing raises a lot of the same challenges as South Korea. But I also think, on the upside in terms of the opportunities that might be available for hockey and for us, it might result in a different equation.”
And a different ending to this story. In the end the players forced the NHL’s hand and hockey fans can be grateful.
“I think it’s great for hockey, great for the fans and great for us as players,” said Canucks captain Bo Horvat, the team’s player rep on the NHLPA. “We’re excited about it.”
But if they thought about it, the league should be excited as well.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email email@example.com .
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020