If the International Olympic Committee wants NHL players at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang they had best take a look at the people sitting at the table and their negotiating history. When they do, they’ll reach the conclusion they’re going to pay or they won’t have NHL players.
There’s no divide between the players and ownership on this. While the players want to take part, they also understand the economics at play. The National Hockey League Players’ Association stands united with the league that costs traditionally picked up by the IOC – somewhere between $15 and 20 million (U.S.) – should remain on the IOC’s ledger.
The other factor at play is it appears NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his ownership group don’t want to go to South Korea, so the IOC’s demands for clawbacks on issues like player insurance, travel and family hosting plays right into the league’s hands.
Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have raised the prospect of going to Beijing in 2022 even if they don’t go to South Korea.
“I think we’ve been very open to the fact that when the IOC awarded the Beijing Games it certainly created a bigger opportunity than potentially existed before,” Daly said during the World Cup. “But it is also possible you don’t go to one Olympics and you go to the other. I don’t think anyone has ruled that out as a possibility and we’ll kind of see how this plays out.”
Is the play is to pass on Pyeongchang but make the trip to China? Sure looks like it.
The IOC can’t be wild about the NHL picking and choosing when to participate, which could develop into a stumbling block.
Bettman has been up front about weighing the benefits of disrupting the NHL season and losing coverage and exposure during a period when they are a major player on the sports landscape in North America. There’s no baseball or football in mid-February, just pucks and hoops.
Owners hate the prospect of losing a player to injury in the middle of a season. Convincing them it’s worth their while to participate when games will be played between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. in North America, and in a country that isn’t considered a burgeoning hockey market, is a tough sell.
Beijing, however, is a different story. Bettman and the NHL are intrigued by the vast potential China represents.
“The question is would the fact that the Winter Olympics in Beijing introduce that country to hockey and give us an opportunity to make a real impression in China, where hockey is really in an embryonic state?” Bettman said at a World Cup press conference. “That’s a discussion we have to have to determine whether or not there is an opportunity to grow the game in China by using the Winter Games with NHL players as a catalyst. That’s the question. I don’t know the answer.”
The IOC wants to push the aforementioned costs back on to the NHL. They’ve paid those costs for the past five Olympics, but with other professional sports joining the Olympic movement, the IOC wants to end this 20-year precedent. If hockey gets help with its costs why wouldn’t golf or tennis want the same?
The possibility that the International Ice Hockey Federation could step in and pay the freight has been raised, but that would diminish their budget for hockey development around the world. Maybe such a move could be rationalized for the opportunity to make inroads in China, but there’s no such measurable benefit associated with a tournament in South Korea.
The South Korean organizing committee, a key rightsholder, or even a sponsorship group could potentially step forward to keep NHL players involved in what has become the marquee event at the Winter Olympics, but none of these factions have stepped forth yet.
The players understand the business end of such an event better than ever before. They’re in the midst of internal discussions on how to split the estimated $20 million or so they’re going to collect from the World Cup once final accounting is complete.
Prior to the event the discussion of a 50-50 split between the players participating in the event and the rest of the union seemed to have some traction. But a lower net than expected has the players who took part pushing for a larger share — more like 70-30 — which would see the players who played get a cheque for close to $70,000 while the rest of the association’s members would collect around $10,000.
Business is business. The 160-plus NHLers who would get to take part in the Olympics want to go and the other 540 enjoy the holiday in the middle of a season. It’s a win-win, unless it doesn’t make economic sense.
Washington Capitals sniper Alex Ovechkin has said he’s going to play for Russia at the 2018 Olympics regardless of the NHL’s decision. Should this turn into a popular movement among players, the NHLPA could find itself in a sticky spot.
But the players aren’t going to fork over $15 million or more to go. Neither will the NHL.
Bettman is telegraphing. Talking about Beijing being a possibility even if there is no participation in 2018 is his move here. It’s the ultimate result he’d like to see unfold.