So the draw is set for Sochi and the 2014 men's Olympic hockey tournament. After qualifying tournaments played this past weekend across Europe, Canada is in a pool (Group B) with Finland, Norway and Austria – one perennial medal contender and two just-happy-to-be-there squads.
What is the opposite of a Group of Death? Canada gets two virtual walkovers in its first three preliminary-round games and there are two schools of thought about that development.
The good: In a venue as geographically removed from North America as Sochi is – where the players will need to deal with the effects of travel and a 12-hour time change – it is not a bad thing to face a couple of minnows early on to get their legs under them.
The bad: While other teams are getting battle-tested by more challenging opponents, Canada will be on cruise control for two-thirds of the preliminary round and could potentially play just the one meaningful game against the Finns before it gets to the one-and-done stage of the tournament.
Of course, all this presupposes that the NHL is actually going Sochi, which will still require some give-and-take at the bargaining table before it becomes a fait accompli.
The NHL has meetings scheduled with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee in New York later this week to see if they can come to an agreement.
Some time ago, the NHL "shared" with both bodies the conditions under which it will consider participating in the 2014 Olympics so that when the stakeholders come to the bargaining table, there will be no surprises at the 11th hour.
The NHL wants a number of concessions, most of them involving access issues, including the right to show images from the Olympic hockey tournament on its own web site, for its own marketing purposes. Indications are that the IIHF is on board with some of the NHL's demands, but there could be issues with the IOC – which, as a matter of policy, rarely wants to relinquish control over any aspect of the Games. The fear is that if the IOC accedes to the NHL's requests, other governing bodies in other sports, such as FIFA, will ask for even greater concessions.
It is a balancing act, kind of a CBA negotiation in microcosm. Deep down, the IOC must surely understand that the presence of NHL players at the Olympics greatly enhances the rights fees that they can charge to broadcasters for the Games.
On its side, the NHL must just as surely feel an obligation to NBC Sports, which signed a $2-billion deal with the league last year and then found itself without product to put on its cable sports channel during 3 1/2 months of the season, thanks to the lockout. Competing in Sochi – even if it doesn't commit to South Korea four years later – would be seen as the NHL extending an olive branch to an important sponsor. There are enough good reasons on both sides to see them coming to an agreement, but until it actually happens, there are no guarantees.
For Sochi, Russia is in Pool A with Slovakia, the United States and the third qualifier, Slovenia, which will compete in the Olympics the first time in its history. In Pool C, Latvia earned the other Olympic qualifying berth and will join the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland.
The IIHF is always tweaking and adjusting its format because it wants to be inclusive – and give the second tier of the hockey-playing world a chance to compete against the big boys.
In Vancouver, Canada had just a so-so record in the round-robin portion of the tournament – a win over Norway, a shootout win over Switzerland and a loss to the United States. In the Olympics, where the three-points-for-a-victory system is in effect, that gave Canada just five out of a possible nine points and forced it to play an extra game in the qualification round (against Germany) before advancing to the quarter-finals.
There the Canadians met a rested Russian team that had cruised through the preliminaries – and you probably remember the rest of the story. Canada came out like "a gorilla out of a cage" (Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's colourful post-game description) and crushed the Russians. Afterward, most of the Canadian players agreed – playing the extra game against the Germans actually helped them get untracked in the tournament. From there, they defeated the Slovaks and Americans in subsequent rounds and won the gold medal. Television ratings, in Canada and the United States, reached record levels.
Accordingly, the NHL holds considerable leverage here and if it ultimately decides to give Sochi a pass, it won't be going to South Korea in 2018.
Some Russian players say they will defy the league and play in Sochi, no matter how the talks unfold, but aside from them, it would be a watered-down tournament without the NHL. No amount of warm and fuzzy Olympic profiles about the kids and minor-leaguers that would be playing instead is going to fool the hockey-watching public into thinking this is anything more than a second-rate show.
If the NHL stays home, about the only thing you can safely predict about the 2014 Olympics is that the gap between international hockey's haves and have-nots will shrink considerably.