All of the stake-holders got together in New York on Valentine’s Day to talk about next year’s midwinter sojourn by the Black Sea. And while it wasn’t all hearts and flowers, the National Hockey League, the NHL Players Association, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Ice Hockey Federation all agreed on one thing: The planet’s best players likely will be at Olympus for a fifth straight time next year.
“There’s a lot of issues there, but I was impressed with the attitude of everybody wanting to get it done,” said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, who doubles as an IIHF vice president.
While everyone at the table wants the NHL to be in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games, the list of I’s that need to be dotted and T’s that need to be crossed is alphabet-long.
“We put everything on the table,” said IIHF president Rene Fasel, the Swiss dentist who has headed the federation for nearly two decades and who may be a candidate for the IOC presidency when Jacques Rogge steps down in September. “I’m confident, but we still have to work on each side — the NHL side, the PA side, and our side.”
The owners and players, who made their peace in January after a four-month lockout that threatened to scrub the season, are on the same side.
“The Players Association generally supports Olympic participation,” said spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon.
So does the league’s Board of Governors, whose network partner (NBC) just happens to be the American broadcaster for the Games.
What the NHL wants, though, is the stature that would recognize the extraordinary concession that the league makes to the IOC every quadrennium.
“I don’t think the league has ever gotten enough attaboys for stopping their season,” said USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. “Can you see David Stern stopping the [NBA] season? Baseball wouldn’t do it.”
Yet the NHL suspends play for a fortnight in the middle of its campaign to allow nearly 150 of its stars to perform for free and risk career-ending injuries so that the Lords of the Rings can say they have the premier tournament in the world. What the league would like in return is to be granted the perks that customarily come with being an Olympic rights-holder or a partner like Coca-Cola or Visa or McDonald’s.
The biggest item is use of Olympic highlight footage and images, which the IOC protects with a battalion of lawyers and which the NHL would love to use for international marketing. The league also wants its owners to be treated more like VIPs at the Games.
“When they go there, they should not be just a fan but a key, key guest,” said Nicholson.
What makes these Games different is the Sochi factor. The last three Winter Olympics were held in major cities (Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Turin) with direct air service and predictable amenities. This time, the players will be flying more than 10,000 round-trip miles across nine time zones and spending a couple of weeks in a former Stalinist summer resort that still is being transformed into a winter playground and where security likely will be at a Soviet-era level.
How much time will they have to adjust to jet lag? What will the Olympic village be like? How will their families be accommodated? How will the medical facilities be? Will there be chartered jets to bring them home?
“It is not an easy operation logistically to bring the players over,” acknowledged Fasel.
Nor will it be in 2018 when the Games will be in Pyeongchang, a Korean resort 110 miles east of Seoul.
But thanks to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s play-money commitment to the Games, Sochi will offer two made-to-order arenas by the Black Sea and shoreside cabanas upon request.
“Having visited the site, I can say that, if they go, these will be spectacular Winter Olympics,” said Brian Burke, who was general manager of the US team in 2010.
All of the stake-holders understand that the league’s presence has become indispensable at the Games, with too many benefits to abandon, even if next year’s edition can’t be shown live in prime time in North America.
“I think it is fair to say that if this can be worked out to everybody’s satisfaction, we’d all like to have NHL players at the Olympics,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
While the US and Canada have been the biggest beneficiaries, all 12 of the teams in the Vancouver field had NHLers on their 23-man rosters, accounting for more than half of the participants. Sweden dressed 19, Finland 18, the Czech Republic 16, Russia 14, Slovakia 13. Even Norway had one: Detroit defenseman Ole Kristian Tollefsen.
Each of the league’s 30 clubs had at least one representative, and 18 of them — including the Bruins, who had six playing for five countries — provided at least five.
“They’re a global league with many players from Russia and they have a TV partner that knows how to manage their product,” NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said last month. “I have a high degree of optimism that the NHL will be there.”
Really, no other option
Since the NHLers first turned up en masse at Nagano in 1998, the tournament has become decidedly better and more balanced. In the old “shamateur” days when the Soviet team was all but indistinguishable from the Red Army club, the USSR won every gold medal from its 1956 debut until 1992, except for when the Americans prevailed on their home ice in 1960 and 1980.
The last four titles have been won by Canada (twice), Sweden, and the Czech Republic. The Americans have won silver at two of the last three Games. And the Russians, for the first time, have missed the podium twice in a row.
Were the NHLers to stay home, the Russians, who have won three of the last five world titles with teams stocked from their domestic league, would be golden again and interest would wane, especially in North America, where the 2010 gold-medal game between Canada and the US was watched by more than 50 million people on either side of the border.
“When you have the kind of exposure you had in Vancouver with silly numbers, over the top, can you put a monetary value on that?” said NBC analyst Mike Milbury, the former Bruin coach and player, who will be in Sochi.
What everyone can put a monetary value on is the investment that NBC has made on both sides of the table. It’s paying $775 million to the IOC for Sochi rights plus $2 billion to the NHL for its 10-year arrangement. The Canadian Broadcasting Company, which has a reported $100 million-a-year deal with the NHL, is said to be paying more than $75 million for the rights to Sochi and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I think Gary has no choice,” Fasel told CBC before the talks. “He has to come to Sochi.”
The stake-holders said they hoped to have an agreement by May, when the world championships will be held in Stockholm and Helsinki, if not sooner.
“All of the signals have been encouraging,” observed Ogrean.
The sooner they get a deal, the sooner the parties can move on to other international business. There’s been talk of the NHL reviving the World Cup, last held nine years ago, on a quadrennial basis beginning in 2016.
There also has been discussion about scrapping the Olympic-year world tournament, which long has been a watered-down anticlimax with B-level talent, or making it a 23-under event.
The day when Olympus was the province of Soviet lieutenants and Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen and amateur brothers from Cambridge and Warroad, Minn., is long past.
The world has become accustomed to seeing the Ovechkins, Crosbys, Charas, and Thomases playing for gold.
“For Hockey Canada, we’d love to see best-on-best,” said Nicholson. “We’d love to go and defend our gold medal in Sochi with NHL players.”
All it will take from here, apparently, is pages of dotted I’s and crossed T’s.
“It is not easy,” conceded Fasel, “but that makes it interesting.”