Tim Wharnsby·Analysis

Gary Bettman's Olympic stance remains murky as deadline looms

Later this week, Gary Bettman will assemble with the NHL's board of governors to discuss several issues, including whether or not to participate in the 2018 Olympics. But it's still hard to tell where the commissioner stands on Pyeongchang.

NHL's position will be discussed at this week's board of governors meetings

With the clock ticking toward a self-imposed January deadline, commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL's owners have yet to decide whether they'll allow their players to participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press)

Later this week, Gary Bettman will assemble with the NHL's board of governors in South Florida to discuss the issues facing their league, including whether or not to participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

If we've learned one thing about the 64-year-old commissioner in his 23-plus years at the helm of the NHL, it's that he rarely enters these meetings without support in the room for the direction he wants to take.

But this time, it's been difficult to discern where exactly Bettman stands on the Olympics.

On the surface, he looks like a hard-liner, trotting out the usual reasons why the NHL should not participate — it's not good business to shut down the league for 2½ weeks; the International Olympic Committee makes it difficult for the NHL to promote its brand; the IOC is making big bucks on the backs of the league's stars, etc., etc.

Then there was the recent development of Bettman's offering to let the players go to Pyeongchang if they agreed to a three-year extension on the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

As expected, the players' union officially turned down the proposal last Friday. Bettman knew there wasn't a chance the players would accept the deal because they've been unhappy with forking over 15-plus per cent of their salaries in escrow under the CBA that was struck early in 2013.

But how should we view the Bettman offer? Was it a sign that he's still open to the NHL's participation in the Olympics in South Korea, or was it simply a hollow play that will lead to nothing?

Will owners back players?

Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly remarked during their visit to Toronto for the Hockey Hall of Fame induction festivities last month that they want the Olympic matter resolved by the end of January. But history has shown that this  decision can wait as long as late in the summer before an Olympic Games. That was the case with the 2006 Turin Games and again for Sochi in 2014.

What could be of interest this week is whether an owner like Ted Leonis of the Washington Capitals becomes a key voice. His captain, Alex Ovechkin, has indicated that he will play in Pyeongchang regardless of the league's decision.

When Leonsis was asked about this in early October in an interview with SI.com, he gave Ovechkin his blessing to play for Russia.

"The Olympics are incredibly meaningful to Alex and his family. So my commitment to them was, I will always do what's in Alex's best interest," Leonsis said.

"If Alex Ovechkin says this is really important to me to go represent and play for my country, I'm going to support him. What's the worst that could happen? We'll get fined or something. I hope it doesn't get to that. But I've got to have my captain's back, and I will."

Leonsis added: "It's a players' league. The fans come to see the players. They don't come to see me play. But the players have to realize, is it good for the game? Is it growing the game? There's the risk of injury. They have to weigh all of that. The union has to weigh all of that.

"The stakes get higher every four years. There's more revenue. The players get paid more money. It's a big business… the union and the league and the players and the owners, we all have a voice. But to me, the overriding voice is of the players."

Costs covered

All very good points. But even though the players want to continue their participation in the Olympics, none have lined up publicly behind Ovechkin.

It remains to be seen if another player will step up and risk criticism from people in his own market who say he's not totally committed to his NHL club because he wants to play for his country.

The International Ice Hockey Federation has claimed it will cover the travel, insurance, accommodation and hospitality costs of sending NHL players to the Olympics, which the IOC says it will no longer finance. NBC, the NHL's U.S. broadcasting partner, wants the players in Pyeongchang too, to help boost ratings.

I don't expect a final decision to be made on the Olympic question in South Florida this week, but it will be interesting to see if the league takes a step closer to making a choice one way or another.


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