Olympics wouldn’t play by the NHL’s rules, so NHL isn’t playing in Olympics

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Jun 24, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks on stage before the start of the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft at the First Niagra Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Barring a trade, Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog will be heading home next season. Late last month, it was announced that the Avs and Senators will play two regular season contests in Stockholm in November.

As it turns out, those are the only meaningful games that the NHL is allowing its players to play overseas next season.

The NHL announced on Monday that it would not be going to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It was a decision that was to be expected, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Sure, the NHL has their reasons. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t want to cover travel expenses or insurance for the players, as it has in past games (though the IIHF said they would pay those). It would interrupt the season and put players at risk of injury in games they can’t profit on…at least not directly.

On the flip side, it’s easy to see the NHL’s incentive for making the NHL Global Series games between the Avalanche and Senators happen. The exposure would continue to grow the NHL brand in Europe, in NHL games, which the league can profit on. For the NHLPA however, it’s a different story.

Hockey players are creatures of habit. Sure, they are used to road trips for away games, but traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of the season, is a little different. They will do it, because they have to. Many NHL players would gladly do the same for the Olympics, but the NHL doesn’t HAVE to go to the Olympics.

On the plus side for Olympic participation, it would increase exposure for the NHL in a non-traditional hockey market. The NHL’s stars would be given the chance to shine, to leave an impression on Korean fans and the rest of the world, like Dominik Hasek and NHLers did during the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

It could also be a gesture of goodwill from the owners towards the NHLPA, whom they have asked/forced to make concessions for the “good of the game;” whom they have locked out three times in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure.

The games in Sweden and the Olympics are two separate issues; though the NHL tried to use the Olympics as leverage to get the NHLPA to extend the collective bargaining agreement just this fall. Perhaps the NHLPA could return the favor, and use future NHL games overseas (or even future World Cup of Hockey tournaments) as leverage to play in the Olympics.

Maybe I am overestimating the player’s desire to play in the Olympics. Maybe I am overestimating the interest the NHL has in hosting games overseas, or the leverage the NHLPA has in the situation. Perhaps even the promotional value the Olympics represent for the NHL.

Both Landeskog and Senators captain Erik Karlsson both hail from Sweden, as does Avalanche center Carl Soderberg. No current NHL players were born in South Korea. It’s either potential hockey market that has simply yet to be developed, or there isn’t an interest.

I’d like to believe the former.

There is evidence to support this as well, at least in China. The NHL will play exhibition games between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks in China next September.

Promoting hockey in Asia makes sense to me, and the value goes way beyond the money they would make in exhibition games/not make and/or lose if they suspended the season to go to the Olympics.

For me, games overseas, whether they are NHL contests or the Olympics, represent an opportunity for both the owners and the players. Amongst other things, they are opportunities for the sides to unite for the greater good of the game.

Instead, we see the NHL doing what they have often done in negotiations during Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure. They hold grudges and they bully people, refusing to budge until they get their way.

As I said, since becoming commissioner in 1993, Bettman and the owners have locked out the players on three separate occasions. In 2004-05, the NHL became the first major North American sports league to cancel an entire season because of a labor stoppage. In 2012, he and the owners wanted more; and they held out until they got it.

That’s part of the issue with the Olympics, Bettman and the NHL owners wanted more. At first, the NHL wanted the travel costs and insurance to be covered. That’s fair. They have covered it in the past, and should continue to, especially considering players like John Tavares and Henrik Zetterberg were lost for the rest of the regular season due to injuries in Sochi. Now that that’s no longer holding up their participation, you think it would be an easy decision to participate, wouldn’t you? Not even close.

The NHL says it doesn’t want to have a two-week break in their schedule, especially when their only competition is the NBA. Again, that brings it back to money. They feel they can make money at that time, and owners like money. Can’t blame them for that.

The issue isn’t fully that the NHL isn’t allowing their players to participate, it’s the fashion in which they would have been willing to go. They know their players want to go. As such, they offered to let them if they agreed to extend the current CBA. They also were willing to go if the IOC was willing to treat them as a sponsor (i.e. make money directly off of the games).

It’s all about money with the NHL brass. The Olympics are about goodwill, unity and fair play. The two sides were bound to clash.

Well, it’s almost all about money with the NHL. Don’t think for a second that they didn’t take offense when the IOC said it wouldn’t pay travel costs and insurance. The final straw very well could have been when the IOC took the stance that if the NHL wanted to go to Beijing, it had to go to Pyeongchang.

If the NHL didn’t hold a grudge, there would be games on ESPN right now. But ESPN bolted due to the 2004-05 lockout, and Bettman hasn’t forgotten. They’ve tried to come back and have been rebuffed. NBC has the exclusive rights to national broadcasts. Other sports spread their product across multiple networks, increasing exposure and profit. The NHL doesn’t.

Despite their injuries in the last Olympics, I’d be willing to bet Zetterberg and Tavares would both play again if called upon. The players want to go. The fans want to see it as well. The NHL chooses not to care about those facts.

Fans will now be robbed of seeing exciting, young players like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau and Nathan MacKinnon compete on the Olympic level. Those players, and many more, will be robbed of the opportunity to represent their country on the world’s biggest stage.

The NHL is a business. At a corporate level, what they care most about is money. Hockey is a game. If you don’t play that game by the NHL’s rules, they have proven time and time again that they are simply going to pick up their puck and go home.

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