NHL Balks at Price of Gold

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Most owners of NHL teams—as the spiritual descendants of North America’s great robber barons—are pricks.

They like your dollar, they like your purchase of the Center Ice TV package ($50-$100 extra on your cable/dish bill depending on market), they like you to have an authentic Joe Thornton jersey ($359.95), hell, they like it when you buy each of your kids one, too.

They only like you to watch a certain kind of hockey, though, and they sure as shit only like you to watch their players playing a certain kind of hockey.

That’d be the long-ass-regular-season-interspersed-with-gimmicky-outdoor-games-followed-by-an-amazing-playoff-tournament NHL™ brand of hockey, not the Holy-crap-did-that-just-happen-even-my-mom-is-watching-this Olympic brand of hockey. There’s a movement underway by these guys to pull NHL players out of the 2018 Olympics and beyond, relegating the sport again the province of college and minor league players as it was before 1998.

Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider is one of these guys.

On top of being a three-time divorcee (on marriage No. 4 at 81, happy first anniversary, Ed! He reportedly also proposed to this wife by having actors sing a Bruno Mars song at a restaurant), a standard bearer for a breakaway faction of the Ayn Rand Institute, destroyer of historic neighborhoods in order to build a Philly casino and progenitor of the regional sports network idea which you pay handsomely for on each and every cable bill, Snider owns the Philadelphia Flyers.

Ed dislikes the Olympics—namely, the two-and-a-half week break the NHL takes once every four years so their players can compete in the games.

He told the Hockey News last week: “I hate them. It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Snider said. “I don’t care if it is in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t want to break up the league. I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off…in the middle of the season. How can anybody be happy breaking up the season? No other league does it, why should we? There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”

Let’s break Ed’s argument down. He doesn’t like effectively disbanding the league for three weeks in the middle of a season. That’d be understandable if the NHL was forfeiting those weeks—but that’s not how it works. The league tacks those days onto the end of the season—the sports’ make-up snow days in June, essentially. Could the flow of a team be interrupted—maybe? But I’ve yet to hear of a professional athlete who isn’t grateful for a break from the aches and pains and cross-country roadtrips.

Ed’s right that no other sports league breaks up its season to participate in the games. The NBA and Premier League send their players during their summer breaks. Major League Baseball and Japan’s NPB are out of the Olympics because they wouldn’t stall their seasons for the rings. NFL writers find their colons seizing at the thought of an annual game or two in the UK.

The thing is, none of those other leagues need the Olympics the way Ed’s does, at home or abroad.

His league’s ratings trail the NBA’s all year long, and if the right combination of large markets ends up in David’s Stern’s June finals, the Stanley Cup is a distant second in the end-of-year ratings battle between the two. Much of America’s population growth is centered away from the traditional hockey hotbeds of the northeast and upper Midwest.

The Kings—NHL champs in 2012—play second fiddle to an absolutely moribund Lakers franchise in LA in the general sporting conversation, and hockey isn’t getting cheaper for kids to get involved in. The surest way to build and grow a fan base is to throw out marginally important geographic or player-based draws for a few weeks every few years and stick the red, white and blue (or Maple leaf) on their chests. An eighth of the nation may understand icing penalties, offsides and delayed whistles, but everyone understands a little caveman patriotism and American TJ Oshie’s electrifying performance in a qualifying round shootout victory over the Russians. That shit is Rocky IV and Miracle rolled into one.

What Ed didn’t explicitly say is he’s paying out a fortune to players who are suiting up for their countries while still under contract to him and risking injury while doing so. Honestly, it’s the most understandable gripe—and while Olympic injuries are few and far between, seeing Red Wings/Swedish star Henrik Zetterberg exacerbate a herniated disc to the point that it may need surgery doesn’t exactly soothe owners.

It is something they’ll have to live with, though. With the rising salaries being paid out by Russia’s KHL and other international leagues, the NHL is no longer the only game in town. All a few Russian oligarchs have to do is continue to allow the Olympic break for their players and watch the defectors stream over if NHL owners manage to push through a clause barring Olympic competition in 2018.

After spending a few days in Canada during the Olympic tournament recently and listening to player interviews, and more importantly, listening to people who watch a lot of hockey, I’m convinced there would be a revolt if the owners succeeded in ending the league’s relationship with the Olympics. Wearing your home nation’s sweater is just too important to too many players and fans to pass up, and the NHL’s position is too vulnerable to shut it down.

The players love it—it’s an event where you get someone like Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings’ star goalie, willingly taking a position as a third-string, almost-surely-won’t-see-the-ice backup just for the convenience of flying to Russia for two weeks without pay to live in a dorm.

The NHL’s owners, on the other hand, are men who presided over three lockouts in the past 20 years and have hired a commissioner in Gary Bettman who managed to alienate most of its hardcore fan base.

Take the Olympics away and you’re looking at a league on very, very shaky footing with the fans and the players—a situation they can’t afford.

Photo Credit: USA Hockey

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