When the NHL announced last week it would not permit its players to take part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the news was disappointing but not surprising. The league had been swinging that stick for a while and opted to get the unpleasantness out of the way before the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Gary Bettman isn’t an easy repository for pity, but the commissioner did find himself caught in an untenable position between owners who hate the Olympic tournament and players who love it. And guess who he works for?
A stronger commissioner might have been able to massage the situation, convincing owners that a 16-day annoyance every four years is less trouble in the long run than the public relations gaffe of taking a strong stand against patriotism and the flag – in this case, many flags.
Bettman has been a willing attack dog for management in several collective bargaining disputes – to the point of canceling an entire season – so, again, it wasn’t a shock he took his puck and went home after the league was unable to wring concessions from both the International Olympic Committee and the players association, concessions he probably understood would never be made.
The short-term effect was predictable. The players are upset, and hold out hope that some late agreement can be made. It could still happen. The deal that was struck to put them in the 2014 Olympics wasn’t completed until six months out. As for the reaction from owners, there hasn’t been one. Bettman gagged them in the name of solidarity, including Washington owner Ted Leonsis, who previously said he’d not only support superstar Alex Ovechkin’s right to take part for Mother Russia, but would drive him to the airport as well.
If the NHL can even block the participation of Ovechkin, a three-time MVP and maybe the best player in the league for the last decade, it’s obvious the Kremlin should have spent more time on the board of governors meeting and less on the presidential election. Let’s have a look at those Gary Bettman emails, shall we?
The more far-reaching effects of the announcement are incalculable, but it certainly sets up another wearisome bargaining showdown between Bettman and the NHLPA, which hates him wicked and is led by Donald Fehr, who has some attack dog in him, too. A little goodwill now might have gone a long way later.
One of the concessions the league sought was an agreement by the players association to forgo its right to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in September 2019. Barring an opt-out from either side, the contract runs through 2022. If the players agreed to see it to term, then the NHL would have grudgingly green-lighted the 2018 Olympics. Most analysts agree, to put it very mildly, this would have represented a large stick behind the blue line for the NHLPA.
The league also requested the IOC pony up money to defray expenses, including injury insurance, which must have gotten a huge laugh in Lausanne. When it comes to corrupt blackmail ploys, the IOC is always the doer, not the do-ee. Olympic officials observed they had no intention of subsidizing an entity with $4 billion in annual revenue (when it barely lifts a finger for sports organizations whose athletes sleep in cars, figuratively or otherwise).
Doubling down on the blackmail, the IOC said that if the NHL didn’t send its players to Korea, it could forget about being invited in 2022 to Beijing, where it is assumed the league would love to – wait for it – grow the game. This might have been a bit of a Trojan horse on the part of the league, if one can mix international metaphors. It’s more likely that old-school owners in a league that can’t hold a position in Atlanta aren’t really that worried about the chance to sell Connor McDavid jerseys in Shanghai.
So, what’s going to happen?
“We now consider the matter officially closed,” according to the NHL news release.
Eh. Maybe. One week after canceling the 2004-05 season, the league and the players were still engaged in secret, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiations to save it. Never is never with these clowns.
If the decision sticks, however, you will see some players, if they can, play overseas next season in order to take part in the Olympics. I would particularly predict that the KHL, the top Russian league, is going to get a whole lot better.
For most of the players, however, they will publicly whine and privately continue to deposit their NHL paychecks. When Jake Voracek of the Flyers was asked if he would follow the lead of Ovechkin, who still says he’s going no matter what, Voracek said, “I think he’s got a little different position than me.” True, from a leverage standpoint, but another thing Voracek has is that $66 million contract extension he signed in 2015. Would he breach the deal and perhaps void the whole thing? Not likely.
Don’t kid yourself, though. The players are angry. They could boycott the World Cup of Hockey, which the league sees as its growing international jewel and cash cow. They could all get lower-body injuries right before the all-star games. They could stand behind Fehr to extract their vengeance, which would mean another lockout, because the NHL is incapable of thinking of anything more subtle in that situation.
It’s dumb. Just dumb. Sixteen days every four years and the league can’t stand the fact that people lose interest in their little enterprise in so short a time. Maybe the problem isn’t that the Olympics are too popular, but that the NHL isn’t popular enough to suit the owners. They should work on that.