Bettman, Fasel step up sideshow
Battle to decide the NHLers' future at the Olympics turns quietly contentious
SOCHI, Russia -- All you need to know about the future of the National Hockey League's players' presence in the Olympic Games is in this happy exchange between the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"There's nothing like a gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing," proclaimed Fasel at a press briefing Tuesday morning.
Before the words were even out of Fasel's mouth, though, Bettman interjected, "Except for winning the Stanley Cup."
Fasel gave Bettman a bemused look -- or was it exasperated?
No, no. The Stanley Cup is every year, sure, but the World Championships are every year too, Fasel pointed out.
"As I said, the Olympic gold medal, you cannot replace it," the longtime head of international hockey said. "Look at the faces here next Sunday when the players will get the Olympic gold medal. So different."
Again Bettman broke in.
"It would be like winning the Stanley Cup," the commissioner said.
There is something somehow comforting about watching the Rene and Gary show, two old friends and occasional bargaining combatants. Or is that occasional friends and old bargaining combatants?
On Tuesday, they brought their road show to Sochi, a kind of quadrennial performance where not only the actors stay the same, but the same lines are uttered over and over every four years when the subject of the future of the NHL in the Olympics comes up.
That's not to say there hasn't been a dramatic evolution since the NHL started playing in the Olympics in 1998. There has, and therein lies the issue that stands at the heart of the unanswerable question of whether the NHL is done with the Olympics after the Sochi Games end Sunday.
The NHL, circa 1998, was in a very different place than the NHL of today. The league's popularity has never been greater. The NHL and its players have gone places they could never have imagined in terms of profile and revenues and stability. If part of the decision for the league to release its players to the Olympic tournament back in 1998 was that the NHL needed the tournament to help its profile, to grow the game, to become more relevant, now it's fair to ask whether the league needs the Olympics anymore.
You can bet that is the question the owners will be asking themselves in the coming weeks and months as they wrestle with the idea of cutting the Olympic ties. By now, everyone knows the arguments. Most owners hate the Olympics (see Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider's comments on the tournament just before the Olympic break) because they feel it's counterintuitive to shut down their business in the middle of the season every four years, and they don't really see the benefit for the NHL brand.
They hate the idea that their assets, the players to whom they have committed $3.2 billion in salaries for this year's Olympic participants, take off to play in a tournament essentially for free. They hate when they turn on their computers or televisions and find that a player like Henrik Zetterberg has aggravated a back injury in Sochi playing for Sweden, or that Florida Panthers rookie Aleksander Barkov is also out with an injury sustained in a tournament over which the owners have little to no control.
And maybe the game in North America is at a place where the brand is so strong that there really is little to be gained from continuing in the Olympic cycle, not with a World Cup of Hockey in the offing, likely in the fall of 2015, to provide a substitute best-on-best event -- but it would be controlled by the players and the league itself.
Still, anyone who watched even five minutes of Saturday's instant classic between Russia and the United States understands that there is something special, long-lasting -- and, dare we say it? -- valuable about the NHL players being here.
Go back four years to the Canada-U.S. gold-medal game, which stands as one of the greatest games of all time, with television ratings off the charts, and it's hard to believe the NHL is actually thinking of pulling the pin on participation.
And in that respect, Fasel is right -- wait until Sunday and look at the faces of the players around whose necks will dangle an Olympic gold medal, and tell us that the NHL doesn't belong in South Korea in four years.
In terms of the things that are tangible, the requests made by the NHL and the NHL Players' Association leading up to the Sochi Games couldn't have gone better.
"Everything that we were promised has been delivered on," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said after the formal press conference ended. "From a logistical perspective, all the building blocks we put in place have worked very, very well."
But is that enough to ensure the NHL's continued participation? Daly would like to see a decision made within six months or so, although NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, who also took part in Tuesday's press theater, said the decision will get made only after he has canvassed all the players and they determine whether continued participation is in every player's best interest.
As for the notion that the league could simply unilaterally decide not to continue with the Olympics, Fehr said after the briefing that he hopes the days of either the players or the league unilaterally deciding whether to move forward on one project or another "are parts of the past."
"That's true on our side for Premiere Games and World Cups and so on," Fehr said.
It's hard to imagine that the players' overwhelming support of playing in the Olympics will change, but they share 50-50 in NHL revenues, so if there was an indication over time that playing in the Olympics was actually a drag on revenues, perhaps those feelings would change.
"No relationship is ever one-sided, and I think we've been very clear that the decision ultimately that has to get made is a balancing act," Bettman said. "It's not all good, it's not all bad. It has to be balanced. Nobody has really focused on the scales of what comes next at this point in time."
Still, wouldn't it be nice to not have these kinds of circular discussions every four years? Who knows, maybe we'd miss them.
Fasel insisted he would miss the give-and-take.
"I love to bargain with these people after every Olympics," Fasel said. "It would be boring if we decided the next 10 or 20 years with the NHL. It's so nice to be with Gary and fight in New York and have some discussions."
To which Bettman immediately corrected him on his use of the term "fight."
"We have fun," said Fasel.
"Yes, we do," said Bettman, "and we have a long-term relationship. Rene and I have been at this for more than 20 years."
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