Gary Bettman Seems Likely to Give Up NHL’s Place on Olympic Stage Over Money
ORONTO — For a man of modest height, Gary Bettman has really managed to perfect the art of talking down to people.
The NHL commissioner was in Toronto on Monday for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, but before that he took time for an annual appearance at the Primetime Sports Management Conference, and a conversation with TSN’s Gord Miller. As he is wont to do at such things, Bettman explained the NHL’s position on a variety of topics, which was generally that the NHL was right and everyone else was wrong.
Concussion litigation? The league is a world leader in protecting its players.
Las Vegas expansion? A great market that will enhance the NHL’s visibility, and just look at the ticket sales.
A new arena in Phoenix? Finally, people will stop talking about whether the Coyotes will move.
Players structuring contracts in anticipation of a 2020 lockout? Gosh, that hardly seems necessary. The system works for everyone, and you would be a fool to think otherwise.
But Bettman saved most of his incredulity for the topic of NHL players at the Olympics, a proposal that once seemed uncertain because of the time and effort involved in travelling across the globe and now seems very unlikely for that oldest of reasons: money.
At issue is the money that has typically been paid by some combination of the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation, and the local Olympic organizers to cover the costs of NHL participation in the Games. Insurance, travel, accommodation and other expenses have been said to add up to a collective $10-million for the NHLers to perform at the Olympics, although Bettman said on Monday that that estimate was low. (Though he didn’t give a number.)
The commissioner said someone else has always paid the bills for the past five Olympics, and now they aren’t interested in doing so. Would that be a dealbreaker for NHL participation in Pyeongchang? “It’s the owners’ decision,” Bettman said. And then: “I find it hard to believe that (the owners) would pay for the privilege of shutting down the league for 17 days.”
What seems meaningful about Bettman laying down the money gauntlet is that it’s a new wrinkle in the ever-present debate about the NHL at the Olympics, one in which the fan base would very much like to see the best hockey players at the Games and Bettman, for one, would probably not. Just last year at this same conference, the commissioner rattled off all of his usual concerns about the Olympics: the February break hurts the competitiveness of the league, it impacts some teams more than others, and, perhaps most importantly, the league is not at all a partner in the event. To the fans for whom NHL participation in the Games is a no-brainer — why wouldn’t the league want its stars on the biggest stage in sports? — Bettman offers all that as a counterweight. Add in the fact that the 2018 Games will take place in a time zone on the other side of the world, and it was already clear that Bettman was very much a Pyeongchang skeptic. With the payment issue, he also gets to shift at least some of the blame to the IOC, although he mentioned repeatedly that no decision on the Olympics has been taken. (One will have to be made by January, and it is probably not a coincidence that his relatively hard line was stated before IIHF boss Rene Fasel was scheduled to address the media in Toronto on Tuesday at the same conference.)
“It’s a tough decision,” Bettman said, “and it’s one we are going to have to seriously consider.”
Is it tough, though? There’s no disputing that South Korea presents logistical challenges to NHL participation, and if Bettman wants to slough off responsibility on someone else he could hardly have a better villain than the IOC, which takes to the role naturally. But the NHL — and hockey in general — remains a tiny blip on the global sports landscape, and the Olympics is the one chance for the game to be presented in front of a huge worldwide audience. Whatever disruption the Olympics cause to the NHL schedule — once every four years — it’s hard to imagine that the game doesn’t benefit by at least an equal amount by being part of them.
Would the reborn World Cup, almost won by an amalgam of Europeans, be a suitable replacement? Shush, now.
It might just be a negotiating tactic — this is the guy who locked out the players and insisted league finances were in dire shape, then signed multi-billion-dollar TV deals and solicited expansion bids — but Bettman doesn’t sound at all convinced about the merits of Olympic association.
“We’re not allowed to be associated with the Olympics,” he said on Monday, when Miller brought up the exposure that comes with being an Olympic partner. The IOC, fiercely protective of its product as it is, keeps all that for itself and its sponsors who pay large amounts for the right.
The IOC, as mentioned, makes for a convincing bad guy, and it’s dumb that it won’t consent to letting the NHL put the rings on even a press release, but the Olympics are a hell of stage, and the league would be lesser by not being part of them.
When Bettman is at the Hockey Hall of Fame, he could drop by the exhibit of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal. It’s one of the more popular spots at the museum.