Confused outrage over NHL Olympics boycott


It’s never a good thing when an enraged heart and an engorged sentimentality dominate logic and practicality, but that’s about where we are with the debate over the NHL’s decision to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Take Monday’s Associated Press report that reconfirmed what had already been confirmed by USA Hockey: That any player on an NHL contract would not be allowed to play in the Olympics.

That goes for NHL players, AHL players on NHL contracts and everyone else with an NHL deal. It’s the reason why USA Hockey cautioned veteran players and college players thinking about the Olympics that signing an NHL deal would end those dreams. And while the NHL is the one driving this, USA Hockey is the one obeying the will of its “partner.”

Cue the outrage over the NHL keeping minor league players from their own Olympic dreams, including the odd notion that interest would be exponentially higher if, like, Cal O’Reilly or some other Marlie were playing for Team Canada. Which is ridiculous, unless we’re talking about Brooks Laich.

Cue the misstating of the actual story, which is that minor league players are very much eligible to participate in the Olympics IF they’re on minor league contracts. AHL President David Andrews reiterated that with Yahoo Sports this week, saying that “AHL contracted players may go if assigned by their club.”

So, Zack Stortini Nation: our boy is very much eligible for the Olympics should the Charlotte Checkers allow him the chance.

(Whether AHL teams will actually do this is another issue, considering their own needs and pressure from the parent clubs.)

Again, think about this logically regarding AHL players on NHL contracts: Does the League really want the Edmonton Oilers to have to tell Connor McDavid he can’t represent Canada but Joey LaLeggia can because the former is in the NHL and the latter is in the AHL?

And if one of the driving arguments for the NHL staying home is “we take all the risk but get little of the benefit,” why on earth would they ship their safety net to South Korean for three weeks? So Malcolm Subban can blow out his knee playing goal for Canada in an exhibition tournament, Tuukka Rask does the same for the Bruins in March, and it’s the Anton Khudobin Show for the Boston Bruins the rest of the way?

I don’t know. It seemed pretty obvious that if the NHL isn’t going, anyone paid via an NHL contract wasn’t going. But that’s just me.

Speaking of “all the risk but get little of the benefit,” the other example of a raging heart trumping pragmatism was the heat generated by a recent Montreal Gazette column, written by the Impossibly Named Dick Pound.

IOC’s Dick Pound rips NHL for its Olympics decision in op-ed column,” proclaimed Sportsnet, and that he did, as well as assigning an enormous amount of import to a tournament in which the NHL has participated a grand total of five times.

“The Olympic tournaments finally became events in which the best players in the world participated. The game continued to grow internationally and the fan base became global,” wrote Pound, who probably also credits the World Baseball Classic with MLB’s popularity in Japan.

Let’s take a look at the guts of this, shall we?

I “get” the economic argument. But I also believe that there are at least two larger interests in play.

OK, let’s stop right there.

Dick Pound is the senior active member of the International Olympic Committee. He “gets” cute in this column by ironic-quoting words like “negotiations” to describe the talks between the NHL and the IOC, the inference being that the NHL didn’t do so in good faith, one supposes. What he doesn’t do, of course, is turn the microscope around and point it at his own organization’s stubborn avarice, which is actually why we’re in this pickle.

And that’s odd, because Pound has never been one to shy away from calling out the Olympics for its corruption.

The first is a responsibility for growing and promoting an exciting game, which is important for the sport, its players and spectators throughout the world. It is not sufficient for the NHL to be content with plucking the low-hanging financial fruit, but to fail to invest in the future of the game. 

This is in reference to the NHL’s desire to go to China in 2022, but not South Korea in 2018.

Now, one can argue the merits that the Olympics “grow the game,” which has always seemed born from two American wins in 1980 and the myth-making that followed it. One can argue that two weeks every four years doesn’t grow an established sport any larger than it already is. The Golden Goal is an important part of the Sidney Crosby Story, but he was already Sidney Crosby.

(As a sidebar to all of this: “Growing the game” would seem to benefit from true parity and the formulation of new, sudden stars on such a large stage. Something an NHL-less Olympics would seem to create, for what it’s worth.)

But Pound is conflating “growing the game” with “growing the brand,” and that’s the NHL’s aim as much as it’s the IOC’s aim in protecting the Olympic brand at all costs. When it comes to growing the brand, one major sticking points between the NHL and the IOC has been placing NHL branding on Olympic hockey, and sharing in NHL/Olympic merchandise. The NHL sees growing the brand as growing the game, and good luck getting the IOC to share in that (financial) growth, even if it means something as simple as NHL signage on Olympic rinks.

We continue:

The second issue is the NHL’s decision to actively prohibit individual players, who want to represent their countries at the Olympic Games, from doing so. Aside from being heavy-handed and an abuse of its economic power, it is disrespectful to the rights and dreams of those players.

“An abuse of its economic power…” what the hell does that possibly mean?

That the NHL can mandate that its players play to the specifications of their contracts and at the will of the NHL, and that’s wrong? That the NHL will use the Olympics as a bargaining chip in CBA negotiations?

Also, as usual, when it comes to sharing the wealth, the IOC is going to run to the safe space of “the dreams of athletes” every single time.

We continue:

While I can see that it might be legitimate to try to discourage such participation, I believe it is (among other things) bad business to forbid or prevent such individual choices. Again, one does not have to be much of a prophet to predict that the NHL Players Association will exact a significant price for the NHL’s intransigence regarding the players when the next Collective Bargaining Agreement discussions begin. That, too, is bad business for the NHL — all of its own making.

Well, yeah, lockouts suck. On that we can agree.

But here’s what’s also bad for business: Shutting down your league in the middle of its season, loaning your assets to another business so it can profit from it, shouldering all of the risk and getting little to no palpable reward from it – either from the Olympics themselves, or the impact on the NHL in their aftermath. From gate to ratings, there is no Olympic Effect for the NHL. They’ve had ample time to study this.

So yes, it’s bad business when you’re helping drive an event that generates billions on billions on billions of dollars thanks in part to your brand – hockey is second to figure skating as far as Winter Olympics prestige sports – and seeing no benefit from it, especially in an Olympiad where the host city inspires such apathy.

The Olympics generated $9.3 billion in marketing revenues during the 2016 Rio Games. The IOC gets 10 percent of revenues from the Games. It’s much easier to spout off about crushing the dreams of athletes than having the IOC justify this incredibly unbalanced partnership with the NHL, beyond empty platitudes about “growing the game” and “let them play!”

But then the IOC has perfected the art of using the “Olympic Dream” as a monetary steamroller to crush logic and practicality. Ask Rio.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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