PITTSBURGH – With the Nashville Predators raucously engaged in a pre-game soccer game behind a partition just yards away, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman conducted his annual Stanley Cup final state of the union address, making it clear to those players and all others that they will not be participating in the 2018 Olympics, whether their teams grant their blessings or not.
And surprisingly, Bettman also essentially made it clear that, as of this moment, there will not be a World Cup of Hockey in 2020 because the league was unable to secure labor peace at that crucial time. (Bettman pretty much put the blame for that and the lack of Olympic participation on the players, saying the league made a request to extend the current collective bargaining agreement in exchange for an international calendar that would include the next two Olympics and a 2020 World Cup, “but that kind of got derailed because it wasn’t something we could get traction on with the Players’ Association.”)
Any notion there would be a last-minute, game-changing development that would see the NHL participate in Pyeongchang next February is as dead as a Phoenix-Carolina game on a Tuesday night. The public announcement of the All-Star Game for the last weekend in January in Tampa basically provided the final death knell to that. But Bettman also made it pretty clear that players such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who have gone on the record as saying they intend to play in the Olympics, will be barred from doing so.
If that’s the case, the league had better be prepared for a fight. The NHL Players’ Association will file a grievance, and perhaps even a legal challenge, in record time. It will be a difficult fight for the NHLPA but one it will be more than happy in which to engage.
“We have an expectation that none of our players are going (to Pyeongchang),” Bettman said. “But I don’t want to get involved in the gymnastics involved in what that means. There’s no reason to pick that fight right now.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly, meanwhile, said there will be a league-wide policy that will ensure all players will stay in the NHL, which conveniently will also get teams off the hook from potentially alienating their players who want to go. When asked why the issue of Olympic participation would not be left up to the teams, Daly cited overall league concerns.
“There are very strong league interests involved,” Daly said. “All the other teams, in particular. That’s what a league is all about, competition of the regular season schedule.”
The league trotted out a number of events for next season in addition to the All-Star Game in Tampa. The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will square off in two pre-season games in Shanghai and Beijing in September, while the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche will play regular season games in Stockholm Nov. 10 and 11. The Montreal Canadiens will face the Ottawa Senators at Lansdowne Stadium Dec. 16 for the league’s 100th anniversary, the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers will play in the Winter Classic at Citi Field New Year’s Day and the Toronto Maple Leafs will play the Washington Capitals March 3 at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
All of which is great for people who already love the NHL. But in terms of actually growing the game in places where people haven’t been exposed to the best game in the world, there is nothing but crumbs. Bettman said he has met with Chinese government officials at the highest level who want to work with the NHL and would like to increase winter sport participation by 300 million leading into the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. But apparently the Chinese, at least according to Bettman, don’t seem to care one iota whether NHL players are there for their Olympic Games. And with the league turning its back on a nation of 50 million that is close to China in 2018, one wonders how the league expects to make strides there.
It has been argued that television ratings would suffer badly because of the time difference, but again that’s missing the point. What few have mentioned is that the games will be played in prime time in a part of the world that could potentially expose the game to hundreds of millions of potential fans.
But at least all those fans in China will be able to see up close and in person NHL teams play two meaningless games with a good number of players who will likely never, ever become full-time players. Seems to make perfect sense.