NHL vs. IOC: A power play that's just getting started
Olympic participation of NHL players in doubt in clash of egos
As Canada appears ready to hoist the World Cup of Hockey trophy and prove we are the dominant hockey nation, the media narrative will likely once again debate whether the event is going to mean the end of NHL participation in the Olympics. Here's the thing – the two aren't interdependent.
As much as the spin has been an "either or" conversation, the success (or lack thereof, depending on your opinion) of the past two weeks will have nothing to do with whether or not Sidney Crosby will suit up for Canada in Pyeongchang, Korea.
Olympic participation relies on one simple question – will the IOC continue to front the bills to bring professional hockey players to the Olympic Games?
Traditionally, the IOC has paid the travel, accommodation and insurance costs of borrowing the world's best players from the National Hockey League. The cost isn't small. Insurance premiums are expected to be even higher than the estimated $7 million Sochi price tag.
Unfortunately for the IOC, the insurance is important. The players are paid by their respective NHL teams, meaning the coverage protects against personal health issues but also protects the team lending their player against the future income of that player in the event he was to get hurt. It protects the NHL's investment in the players they are lending the IOC.
In turn, the IOC uses these same players to generate Olympic revenue (ticket sales, broadcast rights, sponsorship, etc.) So despite what we want to believe, Canada doesn't own our best players, the NHL does and it has invested in them generously.
This structure isn't the norm in Olympic sport and it is what differentiates men's hockey from the other sports in the Winter Olympics.
From a business perspective, I understand the NHL's stance. Unlike the World Cup of Hockey, the Olympics don't generate direct revenue for the NHL or its players. At the World Cup of Hockey, the league (jointly with the players) benefit from selling its own broadcast rights, sponsorship and ticket revenue whereas at the Olympics, the same linear connection between NHL participation and NHL profit does not exist.
But the linear connection to profit isn't why the Olympics should be important to the NHL. The Olympics are important for the long term development of hockey around the world. The Olympics bring eyeballs to the game. New eyeballs outside the traditional reach of the NHL. Realistically, the league should want these viewers if they want to continue supporting international growth.
Internationally, hockey doesn't resonate in the same way as it does here. If we needed more evidence of that fact, look no further than the World Cup over the past two weeks. Sure, Canadians watched, but can the NHL really point to the international TV ratings and call the event a success?
Putting together a team of Europeans is good for TV in Canada but fails to utilize the broader Olympic strategy of collectively unifying a nation to cheer for their country.
To truly grow the popularity of the game, hockey needs more talent produced outside of Canada, Sweden, Finland and the U.S. It needs more NHL fans in countries like Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia and Belarus.
So it begs the question — is growing the game of hockey the NHL's responsibility or does the weight fall to the IOC, IIHF and their respective national governing bodies? Well in essence, it should fall to all of them.
Generating revenue and growing the game internationally is precisely why the World Cup of Hockey is a separate and distinct conversation from NHL Olympic participation in Pyeongchang 2018. The NHL and the Olympics still need each other. So instead of looking at the re-emergence of the World Cup of Hockey as a threat to NHL participation in the Olympic Games, it should be viewed for what it is: a hockey property created to generate additional revenue directly to the NHL and NHLPA.
If fans are worried their favourite NHL players won't be playing for Team Canada in 2018, it isn't because the World Cup of Hockey took place this fall. It also isn't likely that the finger should be pointed at Canada's favourite villain Gary Bettman. It's most likely because IOC president Thomas Bach decided to draw a line in the sand on funding professional participation and refused to insure the NHL for lending him their players.
Perhaps the public positioning of both the NHL and the IOC is merely a power play. A test of egos. If that's the case, the next 500 days should be interesting.