Tucked away on the second page of NHL.com's 'Summit Speak' videos is a short clip of Pierre McGuire questioning Gary Bettman's stance on the NHL's participation in the Sochi Olympics. Unsurprisingly, Bettman remained reluctant to clarify his position and refused to take a stance for either side. This isn't news but there are some things that we can take from Bettman's comments.
<img src="http://www.chriscreamer.com/images/logos/64/1784/full/7059.gif"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Bettman doesn't think the fact that the NHL hasn't made a decision isn't that big of a deal. It really isn't but it just shows you that the NHL is a reactionary league. Their decision-making speed is akin to that of an Ent. The NHL will wait until the International Olympic Committee announces the broadcasting rights and the NHLPA to officially name a new president. I'm all for doing the necessary research before making an informed decision but the NHL needs to make a decision. It does not need to take a hard-line but it needs to make its intentions known. The NHL is the world's premier hockey league and it needs to act as such. I don't see a negative if the NHL declared right now that they intend to send their players to Sochi. With the enormous success of the Vancouver Games it gives hockey a boost and the NHL wouldn't have to worry about Alexander Ovechkin skipping out on the Capitals' games just to play for his country. For politicians like Bettman and Bill Daly, I'm surprised they haven't thought of this yet. If the NHL has to reverse its position it would be because the owners and GMs are unwilling to risk their players in a high-pressure, high-intensity tournament that could result in injury or fatigue and lost games. As Ken Holland notes these NHL players are paid to play in the NHL, not in the Olympics. If Bettman says he wants the NHL to go but gets vetoed by the owners and the Board of Governors, well, for once the crowd may be a little nicer to Bettman.
But what Bettman really cares about is money. He is, after all, waiting to see what sort of broadcasting package the IOC can give him. To Bettman, the Olympics are a "mixed-bag," both negative and positive for the NHL, but even as Bettman admits, mostly positive... provided that the Games are played on North American soil. This again ties back to broadcasting rights in which time zones will be a topic of discussing. Should the gold medal game be played at 7:00 PM Sochi time, that's 11:00 AM eastern time, a relatively manageable time since it will most likely be played on a Sunday. If, like the Vancouver Games, Sochi wants their gold-medal game to be played at noon local time and have the closing ceremonies that night, the game would be played at 3 AM eastern time. Neither scenario puts the game in a position to draw big numbers.
Another reason Bettman may be reluctant to send NHLers overseas is the poor showing North American players have had abroad. North American viewership numbers depend directly on the on-ice performance of Canada and USA and both fell flat on their faces at the Nagano and Turin Games. The other two times, both played on North American soil, drew in record numbers and surprise, surprise, both Canada and USA played in the two gold medal games. Bettman has a very small sample size, but from the previous four games he has concluded that Canada and US seem to fare poorly when on home ice. There are various reasons why both North American squads flopped in 1998 and 2006 but Bettman, and he does have a case, seems to think that the travel and lack of home crowd support (especially for the US when compared to Canadians abroad) may lead to poor performances and ultimately poor TV numbers.
What was most confusing to me, however, was that Bettman seems to think that whether or not someone has been to Sochi is a factor that determines the participation of NHLers. I say it doesn't really matter. I bet you more than three-quarters of Canadians have never been to Salt Lake City prior to the Games. Who cares if anyone knows where Nagano or Sochi are? Do you think the average European knows where Salt Lake City is right off the top of his head? It's a clever trick to divert the crowd's attention and cast doubt over their heads.
The NHL needs to stop being a reactionary league and take a stand. Bettman has often said that the goal of creating the southern belt teams was to generate hockey interest in the US. I feel that one of the best ways to promote the game is through the Olympics. Look what Vancouver did for USA Hockey. None of the other three major sports, baseball, basketball, and American football, share as much popularity as hockey at the Olympic level. Baseball is no longer an Olympic sport (a shame, really) and American football was never one. Most Canadians aren't too interested in international basketball unless Steve Nash is playing and the NBA features just one Canadian team anyway. The Olympics are a golden opportunity for the NHL to showcase the world's talent. The World Juniors is dominated by Canada and the US, the World Championships don't feature as much talent, and the Canadian Spengler Cup squad is made up of mostly NHL cast-offs playing for European clubs.
Angela Ruggiero commented that Wayne Gretzky gave hockey a major boost in California. Since Atlanta, Florida, and a host of other American teams seem to be mired in mediocrity and don't feature any Gretzkys or Sidney Crosbys, the Olympics could be Bettman's greatest promotional tool. It's ironic how Bruce McNall, the former Kings president who engineered the Gretzky trade and convicted felon ended up having more of an impact on USA Hockey than Gary Bettman.