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End of an era?

Future of NHL players in Olympics comes down to the brand's value

Posted: 02/19/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (right) and IIHF president Rene Fasel spar at a news conference in Sochi Tuesday. Olympic gold is 'almost as good' as a Stanley Cup win, Bettman jabbed.

MARK HUMPHREY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (right) and IIHF president Rene Fasel spar at a news conference in Sochi Tuesday. Olympic gold is 'almost as good' as a Stanley Cup win, Bettman jabbed.

SOCHI, Russia -- It's fine to build a brand, but sooner or later, the people paying the freight for that development want a return on their investment, and therein lies the crux of Gary Bettman's Olympic dilemma.

The Olympics have grown the game and taken the NHL to unprecedented levels of worldwide popularity. It has served its purpose in terms of exposure but it has done little in terms of building league revenues.

Bettman and league owners are now wondering if they can't go it alone, continuing to grow the league brand and turn a profit with a World Cup of Hockey.

Bettman, International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel and NHLPA boss Don Fehr held a press conference here on Tuesday and while most of the usual media suspects were in attendance, so, too, were interested parties such as Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson.

One thing became clear on this day -- there will be a World Cup held in September of 2015. Fehr was asked how quickly a decision could be made and he said as early as June from a players' perspective. The NHL is already prepared to give the concept the go-ahead and let loose chief operating officer and outdoor-game brainchild John Collins selling the broadcasting and sponsorship rights.

Don't rule out a World Cup and the Olympics sharing NHL players, but that will take a major sales job by Bettman as his owners no longer want to send their players to the Winter Games.

'As a practical business matter, for the clubs individually, the Olympics have no tangible positive effect'

-- Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner

Their players sometimes get hurt, the schedule is awkward and the owners don't make any money from it. The owners view an NHL-NHLPA-owned World Cup played in friendly time zones that they can leverage and monetize as a preferred international hockey vehicle.

The Olympics make the NHL no money. Conservative estimates peg net revenue from the World Cup in its first run at $30 million.

In some ways, this could be an open-and-shut discussion. NHL participation could be finished and that's been the sense around league observers. "As a practical business matter, for the clubs individually, the Olympics have no tangible positive effect," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, sitting on a ledge in the basement of the Bolshoy IceDome and surrounded by a passel of international reporters. "Certainly for the visibility of ice hockey, which is kind of good, big-picture, for the National Hockey League, it's good."

While Daly said there were lots of positives to playing in the Olympics, he admitted there were also downfalls that needed to be considered.

"It's sometimes tough to prove a negative. There's more tangible data suggesting there's no positive impact on our business from coming than tangible data that there's negative impact on our business," said Daly. "But there's certainly a lot of anecdotal stuff. Like player injuries. Some tournaments have been better than others in terms of teams losing critical players for the stretch run and Stanley Cup playoff drive."

Daly was also asked if TV ratings and ticket sales rise after an Olympics and the buzz generated by having moments such as T.J. Oshie's shootout magic on the weekend.

'There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing'

-- René Fasel, International Ice Hockey Federation president

"Neither one of those things happen," he deadpanned.

A big issue for the NHL, although no one will admit it, is control. They don't like being told what to do by anyone, and negotiations with the International Olympic Committee were difficult this time around.

They could prove even more difficult for South Korea in 2018.

"It's about consensus. It's about what makes sense to the organizing committee, to the IOC, to the IIHF, to the NHLPA and to the NHL. And by NHL, just as Don has to figure out and hear from the players, I have to do the same thing with the clubs and the owners," said Bettman. "Yes, René would love for Don and I to say today that we're coming, but he knows that's not the case and he probably has issues as well with the organizing committee in Korea. We've read stories about somebody in Korea saying they don't want to pay for NHL players to participate; well, nobody pays for us to participate, they cover expenses that get incurred that wouldn't otherwise be incurred by virtue of our participation."

The IOC forked over millions to pay travel and insurance costs for NHL players. Having hockey with NHL players participating was a must for an Olympics held in Russia. Alex Ovechkin has been the poster boy here.

But there will be no such demand in Korea, and if the IOC balks at picking up expenses, this discussion is over. Could all this be negotiating tactics? Sure. But Bettman will already have his hands full trying to sell another Olympics to his owners, and stalling measures could backfire on the IOC.

For his part, Fasel believes the Olympics are a must for an elite athlete.

"I love to bargain with these people after every Olympics," Fasel said. "It would be boring if we decided the next 10 or 20 years with the NHL. It's so nice to be with Gary and fight in New York and have some discussions. With the players, I'm so pleased they want to go. There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing."

There's a hint of arrogance and defiance in Fasel's statement. Almost like he was daring Bettman to turn his back on the Olympics.

Bettman, as every NHL fan knows, doesn't like to be pushed or threatened. If he thinks his objective is worthy, he'll stop at almost nothing to achieve it, as the lockouts of 2004-05 and 2012-13 attest. Bettman also believes his league's brand and trophy are second to none.

Fasel wasn't done taunting Bettman. "As I said, the Olympic gold medal, you cannot replace it. Stanley Cup is every year. World Championship is every year. Look at the faces here next Sunday when the players will get the Olympic gold medal. So different."

Bettman, however, always gets in the last word.

"It would be like winning the Stanley Cup. Almost as good," came the commissioner's quick and telling retort.

Bettman has his brand now. It appears he's ready to test its strength.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2014 C1

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