After IIHF Covers Travel, Insurance Costs, NHLers at Pyeongchang 2018 Should be a Given — in Theory
TORONTO — The money might not have bloodstains on them. Nor are there dye packs hidden in between the bills that are primed and ready to explode.
But the way in which IIHF president Rene Fasel suddenly came up with an estimated $10 to $20-million to cover the travel and insurance for NHL players to participate in the 2018 Olympics seems a bit suspicious — especially since it came a day before officials from the league, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey in New York are meeting on Wednesday to discuss the merits of going in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I always said that I would find the money, even if I have to steal it,” Fasel told Postmedia News in a one-on-one interview. “I didn’t steal it.”
Well, that depends on your definition of the word. After the International Olympic Committee decided it would no longer cover the ancillary costs for NHL players to come over and play — something that it has done since 1998 — both the NHL and the IIHF became locked in a game of who would blink first and come up with the cash.
According to Gary Bettman, the league and its owners had no appetite to foot the bill for something that they don’t make money from. And the IIHF has always stated that it didn’t have enough in its budget to cover the expenditures.
However, Fasel never gave up. He told Postmedia News in May, “It is my job to work day and night to find a solution.” Five months later, it appears he found one, although the way in which Fasel came up with the money has raised some eyebrows.
Fasel didn’t exactly steal the money. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said it is concerning where it came from — likely an area that was budgeted for tournaments and player development. As well, Bettman was skeptical that the IIHF would provide the same level of insurance and travel that the NHL is used to.
“I think the most likely thing is the International Ice Hockey Federation will come in and say ‘we’re going to do it on a pared-down basis,’” Bettman said at the PrimeTime Sports conference on Monday.
“That may impact getting players in and out, it may be insurance, it may impact what is provided to players and their families. But, again, even conceptually — if you’re worried about hockey developing worldwide at the grassroots level, why are they taking money away from that to fund NHL player participation at the Olympics?”
When asked if Bettman’s concerns regarding the source of the money are valid, Fasel said, “Sure, he’s right, he’s 100 per cent right. But I feel good. I think our program will not suffer.”
At the same time, Fasel believes participating in the Olympics is worth the sacrifice.
“First of all, it’s really important for the Winter Olympics,” he said. “Having hockey where it’s best-on-best is for sure value for the Winter Games. On the other side, for our sport, it’s really good to have this exposure on the big stage with two-to-three billion in TV audience. It’s a good promotion for the brand of the NHL and a good promotion for the sport of hockey.”
With the money issue seemingly out of the way, NHL participation in South Korea should be a done deal. After all, the players have consistently said that they want to play in the Olympics. And yet, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
More and more, you get the feeling that the NHL does not want to disrupt its schedule to play in a non-hockey market like South Korea, where the games would be televised early in the morning in North America. Things could change between now and the January 2017 drop-dead date. But most believe the league will skip the 2018 Olympics and come back for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, which at least represents a major opportunity to grow the sport of hockey in China.
“A strong China is a strong Asia, 100 per cent,” said Fasel. “The potential is huge. We have two, three thousand registered players in China where the population is three billion. That’s nothing.”
But Fasel said the NHL cannot pick and choose which Olympics it goes to. Put simply, if players do not come to Pyeongchang, they cannot expect to go to Beijing. For that reason, Fasel is treating the next two Olympics as a package deal.
“I will try this time to make a deal for Beijing, too,” said Fasel. “I know Gary is interested to go to China, because there’s huge potential for the NHL brand, so I really hope to make a deal for Korea and China. I understand the problems they have.
“In the end, I will try and do my best.