2014 Olympics: With no agreement yet, concern mounts regarding NHL participation

It’s now 17 days since the month of May ended, with no end really in sight of the impasse among the NHL, NHLPA, International Olympic Committee and IIHF on NHL player participation at the Sochi Olympics. Rene Fasel, IIHF president, said long ago that May was the ideal month to reach a decision so Olympic camps could be organized and preparations for the hockey tournament could begin in earnest.

SochiEven as meeting after meeting was being held among the stakeholders, it always seemed like a deal would get done, but here we are in the middle of June with no agreement in place.

The hold up on the Olympics decision is also delaying the NHL’s finalizing of its 2013-14 regular-season schedule, the finalizing of national team camps and numerous announcements regarding team staff. As this drags on, Plan B is becoming tougher to organize for the hockey federations.

Should this delayed decision be cause for concern? Well, yes. It absolutely should be and is.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly addressed the Olympics delay before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. While neither seemed overly pessimistic about a deal getting done, the language changed quite a bit from when Daly announced the NHL was proceeding under the assumption it was sending its players to the Olympics.

“In terms of the Olympics, specifically, [it was] a little more complicated negotiation based on it being in Sochi and the physical location,” Daly said last Wednesday. “The IOC has been more actively involved than it has been in the past. The Players’ Association has been actively involved with respect to logistics of players, families, guests. We continue to work at it. The parties have been in close contact in recent days and we hope to get together and get it hammered out in the near future.”

Bettman, who said this discussion is taking longer than the league ever expected, also added this little tidbit: “The Players’ Association probably has more open issues than we do.”

I had heard some rumors prior to Bettman’s comments that the NHLPA may provide the biggest hurdles for Olympics participation, despite the fact that a good number of its membership wants to play.

Those open issues appear to include accommodations and tickets for players’ families, insurance and travel logistics, among a few other things.

As Daly noted, the location is part of what makes the hurdles bigger. Sochi is not an easy place to get to. The town is still very much under construction, which makes the infrastructure a little less predictable to assure suitable and safe accommodations and other comforts for professional athletes and their loved ones.

Another major hang up could be the issue of tickets and how many will be made available to players for family.

Sochi’s Bolshoy Ice Dome, the main building for the Olympics, holds only 12,000 spectators. The secondary arena, Shayba, only holds 7,000 spectators.

Considering the massive media contingent, security, TV set ups, volunteers and other athletes, there’s not a lot left to sell to the public. Take out another few hundred (or more) tickets from the public pool to appease the players and it’s even worse.

Is that a hill the IOC and local organizing committee is willing to die on? It’s tough to say, but considering this 2014 Olympics is already massively over budget and rife with corruption, they can’t afford to be losing out on potential revenue.

It seems a lot of the other hurdles have been cleared so far, but if the players have concerns about what will happen while they’re in Sochi, that’s somewhat tougher to navigate. Having just been to Sochi for the U18 Worlds, I can tell you nothing is as easy as it sounds and no request is simply accommodated.

It should be said that it’s completely fair for the players to make these types of requests when they are putting themselves at increased risk for an event that they don’t get paid for. That said, if this is the issue that kills NHL participation at the Olympics, it’s not going to look very good for the players.

There certainly could be other issues at play, as players can’t necessarily utilize Olympic imagery on things like their personal websites and in other promotional ventures. So it could be more than hotels and tickets that are holding things up.

Coming out of Daly’s and Bettman’s presser, I didn’t get a very good feeling about where things stand and where they’re going.

Meanwhile, Sweden announced its Olympic orientation camp last week, showing a sign of confidence the deal will get done. Unfortunately, I think it’s premature and not an indication of anything at all.

As this drags on and on, Plan B all of the sudden starts looking like a possibility. And if you’re a fan of North American hockey nations, Plan B is somewhat unsavory and if it has to be thrown together at the last minute, Plan B might be really unsavory.

Some people would like to see the amateur side of the Olympics come back to hockey, but those are mostly die-hards that would watch anyway. Only problem is, what happens when every organization has been spending its time evaluating NHL players for their Olympics entries for the last few years?

Hockey Canada has already named an all-NHL management team for its 2014 Olympic entry, including Steve Yzerman as general manager. USA Hockey has an advisory group including NHL GMs. Both outlets are evaluating primarily NHL players for the Olympic tournament.

So who has been evaluating the Plan B pool? Maybe it’s been given a cursory glance at most. So even if you like “amateurs” in the Olympics, how are these teams going to look?

Months ago, USA Hockey’s Jim Johansson said a U.S. team without NHLers would likely include college and junior hockey players and European pros. Canada would likely have something similar. The European teams would all have players from domestic professional leagues, so they’ll be better set up to compete.

Perhaps some NHL teams would loan some players to national teams, like Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he would do for Alex Ovechkin if no agreement was in place. Two weeks is a long time, though, so don’t expect loans to be widespread.

If the NHL isn’t participating, the 2014 Olympics would be an interesting tournament, but for the wrong reasons. It very well could be a massive train wreck that people eventually lose interest in and that’s bad for hockey. The Olympics are a world-wide spectacle and if the hockey is second-rate after such a wonderful tournament in Vancouver in 2010, it’s a huge disappointment.

As Fasel’s May target gets further in the rearview, it feels like the window gets closed a little more on this getting done.

The NHL’s 2013-14 schedule is also getting delayed by this lengthy negotiation. Daly said the league hopes to release it in mid-July, so there’s another semi-soft deadline to watch out for.

After the drama of the lockout, perhaps the NHL has another theatrical buzzer-beating decision in it. Remain positive if you wish, but as the clock continues to tick, valid and unsettling concerns mount.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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