Analysis: NHL needs more control in Olympics

How does sport grow in U.S. if games not televised by main network?


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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- At 3:15 p.m. today, the puck will drop between the United States and Canada for what might be the final Olympic gold-medal hockey game with NHL talent. The league has yet to decide whether to participate in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, with commissioner Gary Bettman having said earlier in these Games, "There's plenty of time," and suggesting he might wait quite a while.

The simple question the league confronts: Why go?

If it is to raise the profile of a sport where U.S. television ratings continue to register below those of poker, then the league surely should weigh the decisions made by NBC during these Olympics.

NBC has aired exactly one full game in this tournament, that being the United States' semifinal victory Friday against Finland. Most conspicuous -- and controversial -- was its decision to air preliminary-round ice dancing last Sunday rather than the Americans' stunning, stirring 5-3 upset of host Canada. The hockey was relegated to NBC's cable news network MSNBC, where it drew the highest rating of any program in that network's history other than the most recent presidential election.

It could be that the criticism NBC took for that was the only reason it showed the Finland game. Or it could be that NBC saw nothing remotely wrong with its choice, given that any form of figure skating draws a good audience.

Either way, the primary reason the NHL is supposed to be here was washed out that night: It was hockey at its best, it was the United States playing it, and it was a golden chance to show off the sport to viewers in non-NHL markets from Orlando to Omaha.

And it was on cable.

Bettman has pointed out that Sochi is "eight time zones away from the Eastern time zone" as one concern about the airing of Olympic hockey in 2014, but the more pertinent question would appear to be: If NBC could not be bothered to carry a U.S.-Canada game in Sunday prime time over non-medal ice dancing, what makes anyone at the NHL think it will bother to carry any hockey from Sochi?

So, again, why go?

To boost attendance?

That is not much of an issue in most NHL markets, and neither are local TV ratings. Surveys -- and revenues -- show that the cities that have hockey love it, and the cities without it barely know it exists.

To grow the game?

That, too, seems to be happening on its own: USA Hockey's amateur registration is at an all-time high, rinks are popping up across the southern belt, and places like Pittsburgh no longer raise eyebrows when they produce an NHL draft pick.

To appease the players?

This, actually, is the likeliest answer.

From stars such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to the fourth-line pluggers, support among the players is virtually unanimous in favor of participation. Which is why the NHL Players Association supports it strongly enough to consider it a bargaining chip toward its labor agreement.

This is to the players' credit, of course: They are not paid to come here, they risk injury that could cost them millions down the road, and they do so almost entirely because they relish -- no, embrace -- the opportunity to represent their countries in the world's greatest sporting event.

But how does this help the NHL?

The players' commitment paints a tremendous picture for those people who already love the sport and those players, but how does that grow the game if those are the only people watching?

Moreover, if these players, coaches and administrators here have a genuine interest in using the Olympics to help expand the NHL's reach, then why have so many of them willfully ignored a collection of media larger and more diverse than any they could see at a league event?

After the Americans' two most recent games, coach Ron Wilson ordered his players to bypass the media interview area because of team meetings. After victories. When the general interview period takes no more than 10-15 minutes. A few players came back to be quoted, but not all.

And this is the team representing the place where the NHL needs to grow.

After almost all of the Russians' games, most players blew right by the media without explanation. The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar had been mostly cooperative, but they, too, blew right by after the elimination loss Wednesday.

And these are many of the same Russians publicly pleading with Bettman to go to Sochi. Gonchar, in particular, had said in an interview that the NHL owes it to Russia to go because of "everything the Russians have done for the NHL for a long time." Well, the Russians did the NHL no favors here.

To be clear, the NHL has no control over player/media interaction in an Olympic setting, as it does in league settings. That is up to each national federation.

But perhaps that raises the dominant point to all this: The NHL needs more control.

It is believed that the league is playing cat-and-mouse on the Sochi issue because it wants to know how often it will be on TV and when and on which NBC channel. It wants to know how it can benefit from the arrangement, which, from a monetary standpoint, currently is zero.

The owners mostly are opposed to going to Sochi, and Bettman answers to the owners.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, wrote this on his blog two weeks ago: "The NHL has provided more than $2 BILLION of committed contracts in terms of players to the Olympics. The Capitals have provided in our six players more than $200 million worth of talent. ... I love the Olympics, but we don't have a fair exchange of value. As far as I can tell, the Olympic Committee is more important than governments, leagues, police forces, individual teams, athletes and even religions. They are in total control."

At the same time, Ovechkin has openly stated he would walk out on the Capitals in midseason to play in his native Russia if the NHL does not go en masse.

Talk about a lack of control.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at our Kovacevic at the Olympics blog. First Published February 28, 2010 5:00 AM


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