As Rob Klinkhammer skates for Canada, Gary Bettman quadruples down: The NHL isn’t going to the Olympics

 

 
 
 
 
In this Aug. 17, 2016 file photo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters in Toronto.
 
 

In this Aug. 17, 2016 file photo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters in Toronto.

Photograph by: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

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 Olympics-related 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 deal-breaker. “The number one 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 number two, 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.

A 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 McDavid-Matthews 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.

Email: sstinson@postmedia.com | Twitter:

 
 
 
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In this Aug. 17, 2016 file photo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters in Toronto.
 

In this Aug. 17, 2016 file photo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters in Toronto.

Photograph by: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

 
In this Aug. 17, 2016 file photo, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters in Toronto.
Team Canada forward Quinton Howden searches for the puck against Sweden at the Karjala Cup on Nov. 10.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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