All of the stake-holders got together in New York on Valentine’s Day to talk about next year’s midwinter sojourn by the Black Sea. And while it wasn’t all hearts and flowers, the National Hockey League, the NHL Players Association, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Ice Hockey Federation all agreed on one thing: The planet’s best players likely will be at Olympus for a fifth straight time next year.
“There’s a lot of issues there, but I was impressed with the attitude of everybody wanting to get it done,” said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, who doubles as an IIHF vice president.
While everyone at the table wants the NHL to be in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games, the list of I’s that need to be dotted and T’s that need to be crossed is alphabet-long.
“We put everything on the table,” said IIHF president Rene Fasel, the Swiss dentist who has headed the federation for nearly two decades and who may be a candidate for the IOC presidency when Jacques Rogge steps down in September. “I’m confident, but we still have to work on each side — the NHL side, the PA side, and our side.”
The owners and players, who made their peace in January after a four-month lockout that threatened to scrub the season, are on the same side.
“The Players Association generally supports Olympic participation,” said spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon.
So does the league’s Board of Governors, whose network partner (NBC) just happens to be the American broadcaster for the Games.
What the NHL wants, though, is the stature that would recognize the extraordinary concession that the league makes to the IOC every quadrennium.
“I don’t think the league has ever gotten enough attaboys for stopping their season,” said USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. “Can you see David Stern stopping the [NBA] season? Baseball wouldn’t do it.”
Yet the NHL suspends play for a fortnight in the middle of its campaign to allow nearly 150 of its stars to perform for free and risk career-ending injuries so that the Lords of the Rings can say they have the premier tournament in the world. What the league would like in return is to be granted the perks that customarily come with being an Olympic rights-holder or a partner like Coca-Cola or Visa or McDonald’s.
The biggest item is use of Olympic highlight footage and images, which the IOC protects with a battalion of lawyers and which the NHL would love to use for international marketing. The league also wants its owners to be treated more like VIPs at the Games.
“When they go there, they should not be just a fan but a key, key guest,” said Nicholson.
What makes these Games different is the Sochi factor. The last three Winter Olympics were held in major cities (Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Turin) with direct air service and predictable amenities. This time, the players will be flying more than 10,000 round-trip miles across nine time zones and spending a couple of weeks in a former Stalinist summer resort that still is being transformed into a winter playground and where security likely will be at a Soviet-era level.
How much time will they have to adjust to jet lag? What will the Olympic village be like? How will their families be accommodated? How will the medical facilities be? Will there be chartered jets to bring them home?
“It is not an easy operation logistically to bring the players over,” acknowledged Fasel.
Nor will it be in 2018 when the Games will be in Pyeongchang, a Korean resort 110 miles east of Seoul.
But thanks to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s play-money commitment to the Games, Sochi will offer two made-to-order arenas by the Black Sea and shoreside cabanas upon request.
“Having visited the site, I can say that, if they go, these will be spectacular Winter Olympics,” said Brian Burke, who was general manager of the US team in 2010.
All of the stake-holders understand that the league’s presence has become indispensable at the Games, with too many benefits to abandon, even if next year’s edition can’t be shown live in prime time in North America.
“I think it is fair to say that if this can be worked out to everybody’s satisfaction, we’d all like to have NHL players at the Olympics,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
While the US and Canada have been the biggest beneficiaries, all 12 of the teams in the Vancouver field had NHLers on their 23-man rosters, accounting for more than half of the participants. Sweden dressed 19, Finland 18, the Czech Republic 16, Russia 14, Slovakia 13. Even Norway had one: Detroit defenseman Ole Kristian Tollefsen. Continued...