NHL's wish to grow game internationally didn't trump concerns

In terms of marketing, the NHL's focus in growing its game should be in China, not South Korea.

Gary Bettman has been saying for months that going to the Olympics is a bad idea

It appears Sidney Crosby won’t be playing in a third Olympic Games. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

It appears the NHL's desire to grow the game only extends so far.

The league announced Monday it will not be participating in 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

In a statement, the league basically said various parties — including the IOC and the NHLPA — were unable to convince the league and its owners the Olympics were a good idea this time around.

"A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized," the statement read.

Initial reaction from fans and a handful of players on social media has been critical.

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist called the decision "a huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted."

"It is crap. That's pretty much what I think. It's going to do more damage to this sport than people realize, and whoever made that decision obviously doesn't know what they are doing," said Senators captain Erik Karlsson, a silver medallist with Sweden at the 2014 Games.

As these very public negotiations dragged on in recent months, the sentiment from the players was that they wanted to go.

"The opportunity to participate at the Olympics Games is a different thing than just another hockey tournament. There's a patriotic element to it and it means something to the guys. It means quite a lot," NHLPA chief Don Fehr said recently.

On Monday night, the NHLPA expressed its disappointment with the league's decision to skip the Olympics.

A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday in Toronto and members and agents will receive an update on exactly what transpired.

Former NHL player Nick Kypreos feels the door isn't completely closed on Pyeongchang.

"Maybe it's a statement, a bigger message to the IOC, and maybe that's enough to spark their interest to come back with more meaningful negotiations, which the National Hockey League has wanted all along."

CBC Sports reached out to a number of player agents.

"They like to go to the Olympics," agent George Bezos said of the players. "It's the best against best. I would imagine there are some who will go any way."

Stephen Bartlett's, whose agency represents players such as Thomas Vanek (Florida Panthers) and Brian Gionta (Buffalo Sabres), isn't sure whether players were individual polled on whether they want to play in the Olympics.

"My opinion is the players wanted to go," said Bartlett. "It would have been helpful to vote, maybe have half or two thirds needed and that would have been a better idea instead of speculating. We have a meeting tomorrow and we will see whether they were polled."

No surprise

The NHL's decision should come as no surprise.

For months, commissioner Gary Bettman has been articulating reasons why participating in an Olympics "half way around the world" was a bad idea.

Their reasons included insurance issues and the risk of injury.  Bettman and the owners also had a problem with the schedule and the lengthy break Olympic participation would require.

"We're hearing complaints now about the five-day break [built into the schedule this season]. While players say they like the five-day break they're also saying they don't like the compression that goes along with it, and that's something that is of great concern to us as well."

It was figured by many that the NHL's desire to grow the game internationally would eventually trump those concerns. Participation seemed to synch up nicely with the NHL's recent decision to play a number of pre-season games in China ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Bettman wasn`t as fast to make the link.

"We look at TV ratings, we look at attendance, we look at everything, and it's been disruptive," Bettman said in a March radio interview. "Is it conceivable that in some places around the world, where they're watching the Olympics, it might have a positive impact? I suppose, but I think back when we went to Nagano, Japan, the building that we played the event in, the day after the Olympics were over, they ripped out the ice."

Vijay Setlur, a sport marketing instructor at York University's Schulich School of Business, said the NHL should focus on growing the game in China, not South Korea.

"It's a calculated business decision. There were a number of factors. Logistically, this obviously created challenges," said Setlur. "When it comes to growing the game and when it comes to playing games in South Korea,  they are not amenable to prime time broadcast slots here in North America.

"South Korea is not an important market in terms of growing the NHL - China is. I can see the NHL being very present in China.  The government in China is investing hundreds of millions in winter sport infrastructure, so it's more imperative to be in Beijing but not necessarily Pyeongchang."

It's something the IOC appeared to realize as well.

The NHL's statement seemed to indicate that participation in Beijing was contingent on the NHL showing up in South Korea.

"The IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL's participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs," the NHL statement read.

So is this matter "officially closed" as the NHL indicates, or is there still a way a deal materializes?

"I don't think you can reopen too far down the path," said Bartlett. "If NBC or the IIHF addresses some of the issues, maybe. But this isn't going to drag on for months."


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