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NHL stumbles along road to Sochi

VANCOUVER -- In a backhanded slap to hockey fans and one of its own sports properties, NBC has offloaded the United States-Canada men's Olympic hockey match to MSNBC, insuring that all those NHL players the network features on many winter Sundays will be watched by an audience of cable subscribers and committed liberals.

This is not, to borrow from Keith Olbermann, The Worst Decision in the World. Somewhere else in this fabulous city Olympic ice dancing will be occurring at roughly the same time. Apparently original dance trumps players from the Original 6. As an NBC factotum noted, the decision to show figure skating over USA-Canada round-robin hockey didn't even require a nanosecond of thought. While one NHL official grumbled about the embarrassment of it all, the league knows where it stands in the Olympic firmament -- at least from an American network point of view. Stirring music, gliding couples and glittering costumes are the gold standard.

Still, for a league looking for the elusive buzz from participation in the Games -- and one who clasps NBC to its bosom as a partner -- the snub was just one more in an odd sequins of events.

Excuse the terrible joke, but I have just mounted the stairs from a press conference involving NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and International Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel, who, if this hockey thing doesn't work out for them, should resurrect the buddy film. They are good friends, as each reminded the assembled typists and cameras numerous times during a 40-minute gathering, but their swell chemistry exceeds even their professed friendship. An example: While discussing Fasel's perennial failure to moderate a transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Fasel said, "Gary is so American and the Russians are so Russian," at which point Bettman blurted and "René is so Swiss." Bob Hope and Bing Crosby -- kids, ask your grandparents -- couldn't have nailed the timing any better in one of their old road movies.

And once you got past the blandishments, smiles and disagreeing shakes of the head, this was all about The Road to Sochi 2014. That particular road movie still is in the making, of course. To sum up the action so far: Fasel and IOC president Jacques Rogge want the NHL to send its players in four years to Sochi, and beyond. The NHL still hasn't made up its mind about a fifth skate around the five rings although technically it isn't entirely its decision to make. (The current NHL-NHLPA collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2011, but the players are eager to go to the Olympics.) There are minor characters in the plot. There's Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who has been the most public of the anti-Olympics crowd. There is Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman, who threw his impassioned support behind continued NHL participation at a press conference last weekend. There are Russian players like the fabulous Alex Ovechkin, who have said they will be in Sochi no matter what the NHL has to say on the subject.

If you thought Avatar was 20 minutes too long, Gary and René's Road to Sochi 2014 already has been running for years and could go on for a couple of more. There is no drop-dead date for the decision. As Bettman noted Thursday, the decision to participate in Turin coming out of what he calls the 2004-05 work stoppage (but everyone knows was a lockout by the owners) essentially was 11th hour. His buddy will wait for an answer. As fabulous as some of the non-NHL moments in Olympic history have been -- we remind you again of the Miracle of Ice and Peter Forsberg's shootout goal in gold-medal game of Lillehammer 1994 -- the IOC and IIHF are not bowled over by the idea of staging a tournament essentially between MoDo and the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly met with Rogge and René for several hours Wednesday. The lines of communication, we have been assured, are excellent. They are far better than, say, the licensing deal the NHL now is getting for turning loose 140 or so of its players to this tournament.

Before The Road to Sochi 2014 lurches to a conclusion, the NHL needs to tidy up some issues. In no particular order:

• Licensing. During Salt Lake City 2002, the NHL had the right to have its shield appear with the Olympic rings. That didn't happen in Turin or Vancouver. To extract more from its Olympic participation, the NHL would like more co-branding.

• Scheduling. Like the Players Association, the NHL is concerned about the abruptness of the switch from league games to Olympic games. (Edmonton played Anaheim on Sunday night. This tournament began Tuesday.) A buffer would be nice, in any case, although travel from North America to Sochi would make it imperative.

• Coverage. The league has its NHL Network, but in the Vancouver pecking order, it runs neck-and-neck with The Score. (The Score, for those not privileged to live in Canada, is a tertiary all-sports network that is a non-rights holder here.) The NHL Network does not envision showing games, naturally, but at least it would like greater access to players.

If you had to take a wild stab at the ending, you guess the movie ends with the NHL going to Sochi -- if it can leverage at least some concessions from the IOC and IIHF. Too much is at stake. Those august bodies probably wouldn't be able to milk the aforementioned MoDo-Hamilton games to the extent they do now, especially when they are able to charge $140 for a ticket to a, say, preliminary round Czech Republic-Slovakia game. As Fasel said, "This tournament is a pinnacle in our history." And René's good friend probably doesn't want to be remembered as the commissioner of the National House League. The players would hate it if they couldn't go. And the press would absolutely slaughter the NHL. Bettman is right when he says the Olympics look better for the league from 30,000 feet than they do on the ground, but surely there is a deal to be made here. A joint NHL-NHLPA World Cup, like the one last played in September 2004, offers the league control and cash but not the cachet of the Olympics.

So The Road to Sochi stretches into the horizon, a road to nowhere for at least for another two years. Still, we are always told that we should relish the journey as much as the destination, and Gary and René are making this trip as entertaining as they can.

Maybe MSNBC will show their next press conference.

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