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Bettman: Shutting down for the Olympics is “extraordinarily disruptive”

For those hoping for NHL players to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022, Gary Bettman offered some unfortunate but unsurprising comments during his press conference at the league’s All-Star Weekend.

Q: You’ve said on a number of occasions that it’s likely the NHL won’t be going to the 2022 Games. Can you say with any certainty whether or not that will be the case?

A: I can’t say that with certainty. Not to give people false hope, I know the Players’ Association still maintains a strong perference to going and I know the IIHF still is focused on engaging with us. From our standpoint, we believe, and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to PyeongChang, tells us going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season. I won’t take you through the litany of reasons why. You’ve all heard me say it. I know it maintains itself as a priority for the Players’ Association, but having said that we were very comfortable with not going to Koera [in 2018]. 

While freezing the season for a couple of weeks in February certainly is disruptive, this obviously isn’t the primary reason why Bettman and the league avoid participating in the Olympics. I mean, with the annual off-week and the All-Star Weekend, teams are going on as long as 10-day hiatuses regardless. As much as the Oilers need this time to rest, sitting here for the past week-and-a-half has been a nightmare.

The real issue here comes down to money. When the NHL allows its players to play in the Olympics, they’re ultimately just lending them to another business. The International Olympic Committee gets to profit off of the players for two weeks from top to bottom, whether it’s ticket sales, television rights, advertising, merchandise, or anything involved with the Games. The NHL isn’t even allowed to use footage from the Olympics in their branding or promotional material.

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On the other hand, as flawed or unexciting as All-Star Weekend might be, the league fully gets to control it and profit off of it. They get to sell tickets and merchandise and use video from the weekend for their promotional content. If Connor McDavid feeds Matt Tkachuk for a one-timer at the All-Star game, they can use that as promo. If Connor McDavid burns past Tkachuk to win Canada the Olympic Gold Medal over the United States in overtime, the NHL can’t touch it without buying it.

There’s also an argument to be made that allowing NHL players to play in the Olympics is good for growing the game, which is certainly accurate. The Olympics is far and away the world’s biggest stage for hockey outside of North America and represents the best vehicle for capturing the interest of new fans around the world. T.J. Oshie became a household name for his shootout heroics in Sochi in 2014. Nobody remembers anything that’s ever happened at an All-Star game but everyone remembers the Golden Goal.

I myself am a huge fan of the Olympics. I would happily not watch the NHL for a couple of weeks in order to follow high-level and incredibly meaningful international play. But while I don’t really buy into the narrative that the two-week break is so wildly disruptive the NHL simply can’t be a part of it, I can understand how the league is getting a raw deal out of renting their players out for nothing more than the big-picture growth of the sport.

If you’re an owner of an NHL team, you’re taking on a massive risk sending your players to the Olympics without much possibility of a reward coming back. Think back to 2014 when John Tavares suffered a season-ending foot injury playing for Canada in Sochi. An even better and more detrimental example is Dominik Hasek, who hurt his groin playing for the Czech Republic in 2006. The Sens, who finished first in the Eastern Conference, ended up getting dropped by the Sabres in the second round. Ray Emery posted a .900 save percentage in the playoffs. A healthy Hasek could have been the difference for them.

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I want the NHL to send players to the Olympics, but the IOC, one of the most profitable not-for-profits in the world, has to make it worth their while too. Maybe letting hockey be played at the Summer Olympics would make a difference. Maybe fronting some cash to pay for insurance for the teams would help. Maybe paying the league some percentage of profits from ticket sales, television deals, and merchandise would make it work.

Hopefully, the two sides can come to some kind of conclusion here that results in the best players being a part of the world’s biggest stage. It’s good for the game and the fans. I think that sentiment sometimes gets lost in the business of hockey.