A Poor Steward

The players wanted it. The fans wanted it. So, of course, Gary Bettman and the NHL owners didn’t. Should we really have expected otherwise?

The league’s decision earlier this week to not participate in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea was hardly a deviation from its rather long pattern of behaviour. With few financial assurances in place – and no direct monetary benefit from participation – the league once again demonstrated a callous indifference to its most ardent supporters. If there was ever any question of what the NHL favoured more, its fans or the bottom line, this action should answer it emphatically.

There was a greater amount of support, minimal though it was, towards the owners than I would have initially guessed. Even Elliotte Friedman acknowledged, despite his personal disappointment, that NHL owners could be forgiven for their position because they bear all of the risks in sending their players to the Olympics essentially. And that argument does indeed carry some weight. The IOC is not entirely absolved of blame in this matter, either.

But the issue goes deeper than that. From a business standpoint, the NHL will be fine. NBC and a few season ticket holders may be displeased now, but this league has endured far worse and survived. From a labour perspective, Bettman and the owners may have thrown a wrench into the looming CBA negotiations, but that is still a small issue in an otherwise larger problem. That larger problem concerns the NHL and its relation to the sport of hockey.

Foregoing the Olympics because of financial considerations signals that the league gives little consideration to the best interests of the sport it sells. Yes, the NHL would likely not see any direct financial windfall from Olympic participation. And yes, it is an antiquated policy that prevents the NHL from using Olympic highlights (like Crosby’s Golden Goal) in its promotional material. But that is beside the point. The Olympics are not about benefitting the NHL. In this instance, they are about benefitting the sport of hockey.

It is a question of stewardship, and, specifically, to whom it belongs. The NHL can lay claim to a majority of the best hockey players in the world. It also possesses the Stanley Cup, the most famous trophy in the sport – if not all of the sport. There is a history and a legacy, a mythology the NHL embraces, albeit less frequently than it should. Accordingly, the NHL has shown worryingly little interest in nurturing the game it markets. At best, it is an inept babysitter. At worst, a poor steward. In neither case should the NHL claim it actually cares about the sport’s best interests.

The evidence abounds. There have been three lockouts in the past twenty-three years, each more frustrating than the last. The quality of the on-ice product continues to deteriorate, with only cosmetic changes introduced to try and open up the game. Bettman states fans don’t care about player salaries, and the league initially refuses to disclose the lists of protected and unprotected players for the upcoming expansion draft. This all reeks, perhaps, of banal tone-deafness if it weren’t for one of the league’s more sinister blunders: its disconcerting refusal to address deficiencies in player safety.

The NHL may frame its efforts as being in the game’s best interests, but more often than not they promote the opposite. The league fails to recognize that it profits – at least in the domain of perception – from improving and growing the game. The owners may not feel they have a higher moral obligation towards being the caretakers of the sport, but they should. A healthier game means a better product, and everyone wins. Fans, players, and owners, alike.

So if not the NHL, then who or what defends the game of hockey? One could make a decent argument for the IIHF – an organization whose mission includes the objective “to govern, develop, and promote hockey throughout the world.” The IIHF, however, has never appeared to the have power or influence equal to the NHL. The IIHF has to balance the competing interests of its various member states, and it often seems the weaker sibling in its dealings with the world’s top league. Regardless, at the very least, the IIHF can stake a better claim to caring about the game. A non-profit organization, its goals speak to the cultivation of people with a passion for both playing and supporting the game of hockey. The NHL’s actions merely speak to the cultivation of consumers.

When fans voice their dismay about the NHL foregoing Olympic participation, it is an implication of allegiance. Their indignation suggests they are not merely NHL fans – although they may very well follow the league and their club fervently – it suggests, rather, that they are hockey fans. They care about the sport and its future. They may have competing conceptions of what constitutes the game’s best interests, but their stake is ultimately their passion. They wish to be entertained, thrilled, and perhaps even moved by the game’s greater aspects.

The NHL acts as if it possesses a monopoly of stewardship, but cares little for the responsibility that accompanies it. Other groups might be more fit to wear the mantle but lack the league’s power and prestige. A shared mutual interest in growing and nurturing the game amongst all its stakeholders would be ideal – it just also happens to be unrealistic. The NHL has the power and ability to do so almost on its own, yet repeatedly acts in its own best interests – inevitably leaving fans shaking their collective heads in disappointment.

  • Roy

    The logistics need to be considered. South Korea is as bad as time zones can get for North Americans and not so great for Europe. Games would have to be played in the morning or early afternoon every day to get normal evening coverage in North America. Logistically that would only work for the occasional game as the round robin progressed (with probably fewer hockey-accommodatable) stadia than your average winter Olympic city. On top of that, you have insane jet lag in both directions, so that would affect play early on and the return to the NHL. Also, the demographic for Olympic hockey spans virtually every time zone on earth, so scheduling alone would be a nightmare and live viewership beyond the tiny percentages DVRing would have been miniscule. This didn’t surprise me at all, and really the IOC shares a fair portion of the blame for choosing a terrible location for hockey, which kind of demonstrates how little they probably care about it and how small viewership actually is, even when it’s easy for fans to tune in.

  • wojohowitz

    Risk? What risk? Ovie goes down and insurance pays his salary. Ovie goes down and ten thousand season ticket holders cancel – not likely. The problem is simpler than that. There`s no profit for the owners in the Olympics. Why go if there is no profits to be had. Bottom line.

    • TD

      The risk comes from lost playoff revenue and a chance at a cup. The Islanders were in a playoff spot before Tavares was injured and missed the rest of the season at the last Olympics. They say every home playoff game is worth millions. Hence the risk… Tavares didn’t miss a cheque.

  • You know, I have no problem with this. We still get to see Olympic hockey, but without NHL’s best. Give some of the lesser names a chance to play. Also, the Olympic brake sucks. This way we get both.

    If I owned an NHL team, I wouldn’t send my top players.

  • sloth

    The only reason people are so disappointed to lose this tournament is because the IIHF has failed so spectacularly in their role as the international governing body for hockey that they have never organized a legitimate world championship tournament for all the best players in the world. The gimmicky NHL World Cup and the NHL Olympics exist precisely because the IIHF has shown zero leadership in growing and establishing hockey globally. The annual IIHF World Championships are a complete disgrace to the sport, a mockery of international competition. Can you imagine if FIFA tried to hold the World Cup every year, and scheduled it in conflict with the final weeks of the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Champions League, etc?

    While FIFA obviously has its own serious internal problems (eg. briefcases full of cash, dead migrant workers in the desert, etc.), the overarching governance framework for international soccer is decades ahead of hockey, and is something hockey should be looking at for ideas about how to grow the game globally. If the IIHF can’t or won’t do that, the NHL and KHL need to apply pressure and trigger a major shake-up, because it’s pretty obvious the entire international hockey system is broken.

    My fantasy solution would be an annual club competition for eliminated playoff teams from the NHL, KHL, and European leagues (kinda like the UEFA Europa League), and a IIHF World Championship every 4 years at the end of the summer. Scrap the World Cup, and send amateurs to the Olympics. Easy.

  • TD

    That was a completely one sided article only looking at the owners. The owners were at least willing to work with the players who wanted to go to the Olympics, but only if the owners were the only one to make sacrifices.

    The NHLPA, and therefore the players, are partners with the NHL. They should have worked with the league if they wanted to go. The players have a say in rule changes and almost all other aspects of the new NHL, but the article singled out the owners. I agree with the writer that more has to be done for player safety and to improve the on ice product. But both the owners and league are culpable. The league wanted to make the goalie gear smaller, but the NHLPA blocked and delayed the attempts. The NHLPA protests long suspensions by fighting on half of the offending player. Why do that if they want a safer league. Why didn’t the NHLPA fight to get Marchant a longer suspension on behalf of Jake Dotchin. They never look out for their victim member or the safety membership as a whole.

    I’m not saying the league doesn’t need to improve, but the players’ and NHLPA’s track record is worse than the NHL’s.