Road to the Olympic Games: NHL-IOC stalemate about bucks, not pucks
‘This is not about the good of hockey or the interest of its fans,’ says CBC Sports host Scott Russell
Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca.
Eric Lindros sounded a touch nostalgic when he phoned.
"Yeah, we're all going to get together, the members of that '92 Olympic team," he chuckled. "Play a little golf in the Hockley Valley, watch that gold-medal game and try not to shed a tear when the Russians score that last goal on us."
Lindros was on his way back from Oshawa, Ont., where he'd been part of a bid presentation which hopes to bring the Memorial Cup to that city. He was on his way to Los Angeles and the 2017 NHL All-Star Game where he'll lobby the league and NHLPA members in a fundraising effort for concussion research, which he's spearheading at London's Western University.
But he called me in his capacity as a three-time Olympian and gold-medal champion, as well as a Hockey Hall of Famer, to discuss the gnashing of teeth which continues with regard to the NHL's participation in the Pyeongchang, South Korea for Winter Games now, just over a year away.
"That's a tough one," Lindros admitted. "It comes down to the power that the league has. It comes down to money. It comes down to player safety. It comes down to proximity. It comes down to reality."
It is indeed a tough one for hockey fans and believers in the Olympics to swallow.
The very real possibility exists that the NHL won't go this time because they say they can't make the business case work. But we're also at loggerheads because those who run the Olympics aren't willing to make it worth their while. They won't give up some measure of control to another enterprise at the expense of their own bottom line.
It's a business deal that's gone sour.
Lindros played in 1992 at the Albertville Games before turning pro with the Philadelphia Flyers. Along with the likes of Joe Juneau, Sean Burke and Dave Tippett, under the direction of coach Dave King, the Canadian national team got all the way to the final before losing a 3-1 thriller to Sergei Zubov and the Unified Team, which was made up of players from countries once belonging to the Soviet Union.
As I recall, it was a fantastic tournament and I watched as much as I could on a small black-and-white TV with French commentary in the cabin where I was living at Les Saisies in the Alps.
The most important games happened at night because, in those days, they didn't bother to tailor things for the North American audience and my duties calling the cross-country skiing events were all wrapped up earlier in the afternoon.
From my perspective it didn't matter who the Canadian hockey players were at the time, they were wearing the maple leaf on their red-and white sweaters and they were playing their hearts out with very real hopes of winning gold and having to tearfully settle for silver.
"There's nothing like the purity of that," Lindros reflected. "To be in the Olympic Village, to go to the Opening and Closing ceremony and to meet athletes from all sports who have become friends for life, it was very special."
Even before the NHL got there hockey was the dominant team sport at the Olympic Winter Games. It was a big draw. There was no curling and there was no women's hockey in those days … nothing to distract from the battle for team gold in men's hockey.
This is a tournament which produced the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980 at the Lake Placid Olympics. That's when a bunch of American college players knocked off the Soviet juggernaut in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
It's become an Olympic fable and the stuff of legend.
But things have changed.
And a lot of it has been change for the good.
Women's hockey has become a fixture at the Olympics, (they came in at the same time as NHL players), and they have arguably, on more than one occasion, produced the more compelling competition. The come-from-behind victory Canada conjured up over the United States at the Sochi 2014 Games is a case in point.
Still, the pros have made a huge impact.
The exploits of Dominik Hasek and the Czechs winning in Japan in 1998 and the drama surrounding Wayne Gretzky's absence from a shootout was riveting.
Sidney Crosby's "Golden Goal" in Vancouver focused and undoubtedly inspired the Canadian nation.
It seems a shame to give all that up because two intransigent corporate enterprises can't strike a deal for the good of the sport and sport in general.
Skip Korea then go to China?
There are rumours that the NHL wants to skip Korea but return for the Beijing Olympics in 2022. It seems the Games being in China will present a chance for the league and its owners to exploit a gigantic new revenue stream. But the question remains, as a friend ruminated the other day, should the Olympics be an "a la carte" proposition for the NHL?
I happen to agree, you're either all in or all out.
And if the NHL and the Olympics can't reach common ground then don't disguise this as anything other than a squabble over a few million bucks which will line the pockets of people who sit in corporate boxes in gleaming, professional arenas.
This is not about the good of hockey and certainly not about the best interest of its world-wide fans.
If it was then both parties would be committed to ensuring that the finest players could find their way to centre ice on the world's greatest stage.
For his part, Eric Lindros, who also played a key role in 1998 at Nagano and went on to win a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, seems resigned the eventual outcome of this perpetual Olympic distraction.
"I hate to burst your bubble," he sighed, as he rang off.
"But the almighty dollar has everything to do with what happens here. It's down to money. That is the state of the game."
In other words it's about bucks and not pucks.
Business and not sport.
Nothing more, nothing less.
So much for the Olympic ideal.