The NHL will be back.
I am talking about the Olympics.
Commissioner Gary Bettman is a smart man — believe it or not. He knows it would be monumentally stupid for the league not to sign a new deal to send NHLers to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
All the NHL is doing in delaying to sign a new deal is trying to hold on to one more bargaining chip.
Almost everything the NHL will do over the next couple of seasons will be done with an eye to 2012 — that’s when the next round of collective bargaining negotiations will likely begin. For the NHL to take part in the Olympics it has to be collectively bargained with the NHLPA and with the vast majority of players in favour of playing the games, it is a bone Bettman can hold on to to extract even more out of the players.
The danger comes in the unlikelihood that the NHLPA calls Bettman’s bluff.
If that happens Bettman runs the risk of letting his pride get in the way of common sense, especially as someone who has never backed down from the NHLPA.
First and foremost he would look like a hypocrite in front of the hockey world.
Ever since Bettman was hired to run the NHL he has crowed on and on about the importance of growing the sport internationally — to the point where expansion into Europe has been discussed with the league now opening the season there annually. Pulling the best players off of the biggest international stage would be extremely counter productive to that goal.
Also, the current fans deserve it.
I know, the NHL actually putting its fans ahead of business is kind of a strange thought in the first place, but they deserve it. The current tournament is breaking all kinds of ratings, and even with the 2014 games being held on the other side of the world, most fans I’m betting are willing to sacrifice a little shut eye in order to watch the greatest hockey on the planet. The league should be willing to sacrifice two weeks of its schedule to let them.
And most importantly the NHL risks alienating its foreign stars by opting out of the Olympics, especially ahead of 2014.
Most foreign players grew up dreaming of Olympic gold, not Stanley Cups. In fact for many of them the world championships take a precedence over hockey’s holy grail.
The NHL’s trump card, however, has always been its bankroll.
That is until now.
The NHL is facing its stiffest competition as the world’s preeminent professional hockey league in generations. The Kontinental Hockey League run by Russia’s oil barons has gained much in appeal and legitimacy over the last couple of years — maybe not in the eyes of North American players, but certainly in the eyes of European players, particularly Russians.
The league is already a haven for past-their-prime stars like Jaromir Jagr, Aleksey Morozov and Alexei Zhitnik and they have already talked one young star — Alex Radulov formerly of the Nashville Predators — to jump ship on the NHL and come back to the motherland. Now the rumour is a mega bucks deal could be sitting there for Ilya Kovalchuk when he hits free agency this summer. At that point one of the NHL’s best snipers can sign anywhere in the world.
If true, that contract could be the KHL’s Bobby Hull deal. It would be their step into the prime time.
Now there will likely not be enough money to bring back every Euro star who wants to play in the Olympics, but the NHL could stand to lose more than a few big names.
Alex Ovechkin — although signed long term in Washington — has already gone on the record that he will sit out the 2014 season if the NHL opts out. And I’m sure he’s not alone in his intentions. His teammate Alex Semin who’s motivations had been a huge question mark through the early stages of his career could be another who jumps to the KHL altogether, and he’s a UFA after the 2010-11 season.
The last thing Bettman wants to do is to give those players an extra reason to go.
The loss of those players and the strengthening of a rival league would be even more damaging than the inconvenience of trying to squeeze the Olympics into the middle of the season.
Really Bettman has only one choice and that’s to negotiate a new deal.