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Olympics haven't paid off way NHL hoped

Participation in 2018 PyeongChang Games remains uncertain

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The NHL understands the arguments for participating in the Olympics. It understands why the players want to go to PyeongChang in 2018. They are the same reasons the League went the first time, in Nagano in 1998, under the same Commissioner, Gary Bettman, who made it happen.

So why is there "some strong negative sentiment" among the owners, as Commissioner Bettman said after the Board of Governors met Thursday? 

Because now that the NHL has participated in five Olympics, it is clear they don't boost the sport or business the way the League originally hoped and many people think they do. In fact, in many ways, they hurt.

Nagano was not a boon for hockey or the NHL.

"The ultimate impact it had on the game worldwide was negligible," Commissioner Bettman said.

The 2006 Turin and 2014 Sochi Olympics weren't boons. The 2002 Salt Lake City and 2010 Vancouver Olympics were better -- each culminating in a Canada-United States gold-medal game on North American ice -- but they weren't boons either.

"When you look at the Olympics in Salt Lake City and Vancouver, both in terms of location and the teams that went very far, it generated more interest, particularly in North America," Commissioner Bettman said. "In some of the other places, not as much."

The Olympics are incredible because of the best-on-best tournament itself and the overall event. But hockey is not much different from, say, skiing or swimming. Die-hard fans love the sport the way they love it all the time. Casual fans get into it for a couple of weeks and then forget about it the week afterward.

The NHL has been shutting down its season in February -- a time of year when it isn't competing with football or baseball -- and lending its players to someone else's tournament. It has risked injury not only to the players participating, but to all players because of a compressed schedule. While the International Olympic Committee has reaped rewards, the NHL has not in ratings or sales.

"We certainly understand and appreciate the players want to be a part of the Olympics," Arizona Coyotes co-owner Anthony LeBlanc said. "But from our perspective, it is difficult for our business."

The NHL discussed the same issues before Sochi and decided to go. The question is whether the League has reached a tipping point.

"I think after doing five of these, I don't know, fatigue might be a word?" Commissioner Bettman said.

"Yeah," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, sitting next to Commissioner Bettman at a news conference. "I think our constituents have become increasingly negative toward the Olympic experience. I think that's fair to say."

Commissioner Bettman clarified some things Thursday:

-- If the IOC or the International Ice Hockey Federation does not pay insurance and travel costs, the NHL will not participate. Commissioner Bettman said he was unsure if there was enough money to cover what was covered in Sochi, even though IIHF president Rene Fasel said he could provide the necessary funding. Commissioner Bettman said he didn't know if it would be a good idea to take the money away from hockey development. But even if the IOC or the IIHF does pay all those expenses, that doesn't necessarily mean the NHL will go. The other issues remain.

-- The NHL did not demand a three-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association in exchange for Olympic participation. The NHL and NHLPA each has the right to reopen the CBA after the 2019-20 season, and they hope to hold the next World Cup of Hockey in September 2020. Commissioner Bettman said he discussed waiving the right to reopen the CBA so it would not affect the World Cup. That morphed into discussion of a calendar of international events that would include the Olympics. The idea was that there would be labor peace and predictability, and that might provide more incentive for Olympic participation.

"If the Olympics weren't just a one-off for PyeongChang, maybe those owners who think going to the Olympics had had its course might think better in the context of something broader," Commissioner Bettman said. "I was looking for something that might change some of the sentiment of the owners."

The NHLPA said it was not interested. Asked if there was room for negotiation or a counteroffer, Commissioner Bettman said he never intended this to be a negotiation and wasn't looking for a counteroffer. But if the NHLPA has a suggestion, it could be discussed.

-- The Board did not vote Thursday. It did not decide Thursday. But Commissioner Bettman said time was running out because the NHL needs to schedule its 2017-18 season.

For the NHL to participate in PyeongChang, someone or something must persuade the Board that it is in the best interest of the League to go -- and soon.

"It's a really difficult issue," Tampa Bay Lightning chairman Jeff Vinik said. "It's complicated. It's something that we've paid a lot of attention to and are thinking hard about."

 

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