NHL’s future at Olympics a thorny issue
TORONTO — The Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are still nearly four years away, but the battle over whether NHL players will take part is already being waged.
“The elephant in the room is that we haven’t made a decision yet,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday at the World Hockey Summit regarding the future of the NHL’s relationship with the Olympics.
Bettman adding that the subject is under discussion, but years away from reaching a beachhead.
Still, the question of whether the world’s top hockey league would allow its stars to play in the world’s largest sporting event received the star treatment at the summit. What began as backslapping for the success of Vancouver 2010 quickly evolved into debate about whether NHL players would be back for the 2014 Games.
Bettman remained noncommittal on whether the NHL’s board of governors would agree to pause the 2013-14 season for two-plus weeks, saying the league would want a bigger say in the Olympic tournament.
“There are a host of issues that need to be addressed,” Bettman said. “When we understand what the (International Olympic Committee) and (the International Ice Hockey Federation) are prepared to do to make our taking a 16-day break sensible . . . the board of governors will make a decision.”
Igor Kuperman, who helped launch Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, asked attendees to consider how Canadians would have reacted if they were told NHL stars would not be in Vancouver.
“There is going to be another revolution in Russia,” Kuperman said. “People forgot about 1917. It’s going to be another one. It is impossible to imagine (the NHL will not send its players to Sochi), but there is always a Plan B.”
Kuperman’s Plan B is simple: NHL stars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, both Russian, have already said they will play in Sochi, and the NHL would risk a public relations disaster if they went without consent. As well, Kuperman hinted at full European participation, with local companies covering whatever salaries players lose if they are suspended.
“If that happens, how will the team owners explain to the fans that their players are on a leave of absence?” he asked.
The question, however, does not come down to passion or opinion for those with a vested interest in the NHL.
“As a fan, I want to go back to the Olympics,” Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “(But) there are major issues that need to be taken care of first.”
One is the concern of injuries. In 2002, Red Wings star Steve Yzerman played for Canada despite concerns about his knees. The injury got worse during the Olympics, but he kept playing because he felt he owed the team. He missed the remainder of the NHL season.
Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg is under a long-term contract that is not fully insured. What if he suffered a career-ending injury while playing for Sweden in 2014?
“If we don’t make the playoffs in Detroit, it has a major impact on our team,” Holland said. “Detroit is in a tough economic times right now, it is important to put a good product on the ice.”
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel, who has quietly sparred with Bettman on the issue, attempted a conciliatory tone Wednesday while thanking the NHL for its help in Vancouver.
“Hockey cannot get a bigger and more important stage than the Olympic Games,” he said. “There is no question that Vancouver 2010 has left a permanent mark on the game, the fans, the players, and the coaches.”
The pressures to go to Sochi stem the record interest and viewership in Olympic hockey earlier this year. A memorable Canadian victory on home soil created an unforgettable experience, said John Furlong, the chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee.
“If you don’t find a solution (and send NHL players to the next Olympics), the fans will never forgive you,” Furlong said.
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