League, players split on Olympics
Here in the dog days of summer, with winter storms and chilly rinks evil intruders in our consciousness, the Winter Olympics of 2010 seem far more distant than a six-month fast-forward through the calendar. But the Games will be in Vancouver before we know it . . . and then what?
The National Hockey League, in views expressed regularly by commissioner Gary Bettman and Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the Board of Governors, ain’t all that hip on the five-ring circus.
NHLers first participated in the Games en masse in 1998 at Nagano and subsequently played at Salt Lake City (2002) and Torino (’06). They’ll be in Vancouver, but as of today, Bettman, Jacobs, et al don’t see the point of playing in 2014 (Sochi, Russia) or perhaps ever again.
“There is no other business in the world that shuts their doors for 2 1/2 weeks in the middle of the season,’’ said Brian Burke, the Maple Leafs general manager and GM of the US squad for Vancouver. “I mean, we have gotten very little benefit from this tournament when it is not in North America. And I realize we can’t go only when it’s in North America - the IOC is not going to put up with that. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last Olympics that NHL players participate in.’’
However, Burke acknowledged, that view is the opposite of the one held by the players, who aspire to represent their countries. The rank-and-file, even the Americans, who have not won the tournament since 1980, love the competition and spirit of the Games.
No Sochi? Well, between 2010 and 2014, the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is due to expire, and it’s a virtual certainty that Players Association executive director Paul Kelly will want to preserve the language that gets his guys in the Games.
“We have 30 percent of our players from all across Europe and Russia,’’ noted Kelly. “The World Championships and Olympics mean a great deal to these players. The players overwhelmingly support continued participation in the Olympics, regardless of issues about time zones, locations, and whether it is in Russia or someplace else.’’
The league feels it loses marketing momentum and its place in a very crowded professional sports marketplace with the two-week hiatus. There is also the risk of injury to the working help, along with the potential for non-Olympic participants to depart for warmer climes and then, upon returning to work, be slow to regenerate their competitive juices (too much piña colada mix and a lot of sun can do that).
The Lords of the Boards also wonder whether their fan base is paying attention to the Games and making the hoped-for crossover to the NHL shield.
“I think we got a lot of pop out of Salt Lake, given that the Games were in prime time and there was a lot of media coverage that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,’’ mused Burke. “When they are in Sochi, or when they were in Nagano or Torino, no, I don’t think we got any pop out of it at all.’’
In the salary-capped, shared-revenue system of the current CBA, it is equally important to the players to keep the NHL financial pipeline primed and the fan base engaged (i.e. spending). Kelly is well aware of that. But he also has a very young, eager, and proud rank-and-file, some of whom never will get a chance to get to Olympus even with the doors still open.
“I understand the practical concerns of the league,’’ he said. “They are legitimate. I think we need to talk through them.
“We are not going to solve this between now and Vancouver. I think the league is going to wait and see what kind of experience we have in Vancouver, what kind of buzz is created around the sport.
“If you have a tremendous tournament, a great gold medal game, if your [TV] ratings are off the chart, if you create an international buzz about the sport, then I think it changes the dialogue. I think the NHL has to take a fresh look at this question.
“So at this point we are not going to push the issue. We will wait and see how Vancouver unfolds and then hopefully they will see it our way.’’
Options here and there for CheliosChris Chelios, looking fit, tanned, and not day over 45 - he will be 47 in January - said last week during the Team USA orientation camp in Woodridge, Ill., that he definitely will be playing to start the 2009-10 season. However, he doesn’t know if it will be one of the NHL’s Original 30, or a club in the minor leagues, or perhaps even in Russia.
“I’ve talked to two clubs over there,’’ said the three-time Stanley Cup-winning blue liner. “One of them is Barry Smith’s club [St. Petersburg], and I’m not sure of the other one. I don’t know if it will come to that, but we’ll see.’’
After a decade in Detroit, where he won two of those Cups, Chelios was told this spring by the Winged Wheels that, at least to start the season, they don’t have room for him on the roster. Ideally, he says, he would like to play for an Eastern Conference team, and he has reached out to clubs around the league. Thus far, nothing.
“They all say they want to look at their kids first,’’ said Chelios. “And I understand that.’’
He spent much of last week helping out Ron Wilson and the rest of the Team USA coaching staff, including Scott Gordon and John Tortorella, at the club’s orientation camp just outside Chelios’s hometown of Chicago. If he finds out in, say, late November that no one wants to give him another shot in the NHL, he likely will concentrate more on his Team USA involvement, although that role remains undefined.
“I have to start out the year playing, to stay in shape and just keep in the loop in case something doesn’t work out with the young guys [with their NHL teams],’’ he said. “It’s a choice I haven’t had to make in 10 years about relocating, and my family’s not moving, so that’s probably the biggest reason I am still playing. I have never had to face leaving home and leaving my kids behind.’’
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.