As the NHL meets with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation to come to some sort of understanding on the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, the seed of doubt has been planted. There’s a chance, albeit a slim one, that the NHL won’t shut down during the Olympics, thus making its athletes unavailable.
The NHL is seeking something a little more in return for shutting down its business for two weeks in February of 2014. A lot of it has to do with better access to the players and a little more flexibility with Olympic properties like videos and images of NHL players. It’s not asking a lot, but the IOC is not known for making a lot of sense (see: Wrestling getting dropped inexplicably this week).
I wouldn’t call these demands from the NHL so much as they are wants. As of now, there’s no real financial gain to be made from going to the Olympics. The TV ratings didn’t explode, nor did ticket sales after any of the previous Games (though the league has gotten a lot stronger in the last four years). If the IOC doesn’t grant the NHL at least some of their wants, there’s that chance that this becomes an NHL-less Olympics.
So… what if that were to happen?
A lot needs to play out before the alternatives start getting put into place, but those alternatives are a bit unsavory.
USA Hockey executive director Jim Johannson said in a teleconference today that the organization does have somewhat of a contingency plan in place, but until the final decision is made, it is still unclear which players will be available to them.
“We’re going to go after the best player’s available regardless,” Johannson said. Where those players might be coming from is less certain.
Johannson said that if the NHL doesn’t go to Sochi, players from the American Hockey League may not be available either, at least the ones that have NHL rights. Those teams might want to keep those players close by in the event they need to call someone up or the organization just prefers to keep certain players with their club.
That would leave Americans playing in the European professional leagues and college players, according to Johannson, and presumably junior players as well, though Johannson did not specifically mention them.
If that’s the case, it would revert back similar to the old days, though Johannson said the organization would not pull together a traveling national team like they used to.
While the idea of having semi-amateurs play in the Olympics again has some appeal, that appeal is very narrow.
The NHL brings name recognition and we all saw how good the 2010 Olympics was from a competitive standpoint. Should USA Hockey (and also Hockey Canada) have to pull primarily from low-level professional leagues and college or junior, it would be really tough to compete.
This isn’t 1980 anymore. The game has grown, the player pool has widened and the European nations are better now as a whole. While the U.S. and Canada would lose essentially ALL of it’s top professionals, countries like Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia would not.
Yes, all of those countries have top pros in the NHL and their losses would be significant, but those countries have far more players that are of a high to elite levels of talent in their domestic professional leagues.
Sending out college and/or junior players to play against pros would make for some interesting competition. There’s something compelling about the U.S. and Canada being underdogs, but there’s the big risk that the overall quality of the games is low.
It would be ahem… a miracle for the U.S. and/or Canada to win a medal, let alone gold with the options available to them from a player personnel standpoint. It is far more likely these teams would have trouble placing in the top half of the Olympics. Think that’s good for North American TV ratings? This is where the NHL has some leverage with the IOC in making its pitch.
Behind the scenes, I’m guessing NBC is putting some pressure on the NHL to take whatever deal the IOC comes up with. The 2010 Olympics was a ratings boon for NBC, with the USA-Canada gold-medal game drawing the largest hockey audience in the U.S. since the Miracle on Ice.
The ratings potential for Sochi is lower with the time difference, but shrink that even more if the NHL doesn’t go.
The Olympics do help the NHL, even if it’s only marginal. The exposure provided, though fleeting, was significant in 2010. There’s literally nothing else the NHL can do, not even have an entire season of Winter Classics, to match the audience it has the potential to reach during the Olympics.
If the IOC balks at granting the NHL any of its desired privileges, the league has every right to walk away and move on. The negative impact would probably be minor for the NHL, but as is the case every four years, the league has potential to continue to push itself further with the Olympics.
There’s no question the 2010 gold-medal game was some of the best advertising the league could ask for. That kind of exposure isn’t always going to result in the regular-season ratings and ticket sales the league wants, but the league has continued to grow over the last four years. The revenues are up, the ratings are up. The 2010 Olympics probably played some role, even if it’s a very small one.
The Sochi Olympics may not bring the same type of exposure, but it still presents an opportunity for the league to keep propelling itself into the greater American sports consciousness.
The league certainly inconveniences itself with the Olympics and incurs some risk, but it almost certainly does not hurt the league to be in Sochi. As long as they get a little give back from the IOC and IIHF, I think they will be.