Olympic re­grets? Not at all

Bettman un­re­pen­tant about NHL’s de­ci­sion to skip 2018 Games

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - SPORTS - SCOTT STINSON sstin­son@post­media.com twit­ter.com/scot­t_stin­son

TORONTO — Gord Miller was in the mid­dle of ask­ing a ques­tion about NHL hockey and the Olympics when Gary Bettman cut him off.

“Why are we beat­ing a dead horse about this?” the com­mis­sioner said. “I mean, it’s come and gone, we al­ready made the de­ci­sion. We’re not go­ing.”

It was the only mo­ment of frosti­ness be­tween the TSN host and the hockey boss in their an­nual con­ver­sa­tion at the Prime­Time Sports Man­age­ment Con­fer­ence, which takes place this week at a down­town Toronto ho­tel. And the mo­ment came af­ter Bettman had an­swered sev­eral Olympic­sre­lated ques­tions: he had no re­grets at all about not go­ing, the big stum­bling block was the dis­rup­tion to the NHL sea­son, and it re­mained a sore point that the league was never al­lowed to as­so­ciate it­self with the Olympics even when its clubs loaned their star ath­letes to the five-ring spec­ta­cle.

But if Bettman was even­tu­ally ex­as­per­ated by the fact that there con­tin­ues to be so much dis­cus­sion about the NHL’s non-par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Olympics, he might want to con­sider the rea­son for that: be­cause peo­ple still can’t be­lieve that the NHL has gone and done it. The point is driven home when the NHL sends teams to Swe­den for reg­u­lar-sea­son games, as it just did, or to China for pre-sea­son games, as it did months ago, with the stated goal of grow­ing the sport of hockey in­ter­na­tion­ally. The de­ci­sion is un­der­scored when Canada re­leases a men’s ros­ter for a pre- Olympic tour­na­ment

that in­cludes Rob Klinkham­mer and Quin­ton How­den, or Team USA does the same with names like Chad Billins and Broc Lit­tle. (Note: No ‘k’.)

And the NHL’s re­cusal from what had be­come the qua­dren­nial can’t-miss best-on-best tour­na­ment is pon­dered when the high­light shows are dom­i­nated by play­ers like Nikita Kucherov, Con­nor McDavid, and Aus­ton Matthews, all of whom were ready to usher in a new era of elite play for their coun­tries at the Olympic level. If, you know, the NHL had let them.

To hear Bettman tell it, as he has said for some time, none of this was worth the NHL go­ing to

Pyeongchang 2018. Also in keep­ing with the league’s po­si­tion of more than a year, the ex­pla­na­tion for the NHL’s re­luc­tance was a bit fluid on Mon­day. Bettman said there was at one point a hand­ful of clubs that were keen on Olympic par­tic­i­pa­tion and a “big­ger hand­ful” that didn’t want the dis­rup­tion, with a big group in the mid­dle that was on the fence. He said that group be­came an­noyed when the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee let it be known that they would not cover the travel and in­surance ex­penses of NHL play­ers this time around. Bettman said the at­ti­tude among many clubs quickly be­came: “If they don’t value our

par­tic­i­pa­tion, why are we dis­rupt­ing our sea­son?”

But the com­mis­sioner also said that the ex­pense prob­lem, which might ul­ti­mately have been re­solved, was not the deal­breaker. “The No. 1 over­rid­ing is­sue is how dis­rup­tive it is to our sea­son and the fact that we would dis­ap­pear for roughly three weeks in Fe­bru­ary,” he said.

So, were own­ers re­ally mad about the ex­pense thing — Bettman did sug­gest it was the turn­ing point — or was that just a con­ve­nient scape­goat to hide the fact that the NHL had fallen out of love with the Olympic ex­pe­ri­ence?

I will take door No. 2, in part

be­cause Bettman left open the pos­si­bil­ity of an NHL re­turn to the Games. He said no de­ci­sion has been made on Bei­jing 2022 — al­though he noted that IOC boss Thomas Bach said the NHL couldn’t ex­pect to skip South Korea and come back into the fold for China — and he said opin­ions might change if the Olympics ended up back in North Amer­ica. That’s cer­tainly a pos­si­bil­ity, and Calgary is con­sid­er­ing a 2026 bid. “I’m not say­ing we’d go, but it’s a dif­fer­ent equa­tion,” Bettman said of an Olympics on this con­ti­nent.

An Olympics in Calgary or Den­ver would, nat­u­rally, still dis­rupt the NHL sched­ule for three weeks, which sug­gests the true rea­son for the league’s skip­ping Pyeongchang is not the pause in the NHL cal­en­dar but the fact that it’s way over there on the other side of the map. But so is China, the mar­ket that the NHL would very much like to ex­ploit.

In the mean­time, Bettman says the NHL would like to con­tinue the World Cup that was re­launched last year in Toronto, al­though 2020 is some­thing of a prob­lem: the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment could be an­nulled by ei­ther side that fall, and the league wants no part of a World Cup that leads straight into a work stop­page. (As hap­pened in 2004.) So, the thing that was sup­posed to re­place the Olympics on the in­ter­na­tional hockey cal­en­dar has gone straight from “glo­ri­ous re­turn” to “we’re still in the con­cept stage.”

If you are a hockey fan look­ing for­ward to see­ing a McDavidMatthews show­down at the in­ter­na­tional level, or even a Kucherov-Karls­son one, I’m not sure which horse I would bet, the Olympics or the World Cup.

Maybe some of those stars will see their teams knocked out of the NHL play­offs early, and they can face each other, rep­re­sent­ing their coun­tries, at the IIHF World Cham­pi­onships.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman spoke at the Prime­Time Sports Man­age­ment Con­fer­ence on Mon­day in Toronto.

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