NHL players have a role in Winter Olympics no-show
Alexander Ovechkin may decry how 'it sucks' that he will not be in South Korea, but the NHLPA failed to enshrine Olympics attendance in its contract
Alexander Ovechkin ran up the white flag on the Olympics late Thursday night with a heart-felt statement about how much he will miss playing in them.
But the Washington Capitals star and his 700-odd union brothers in the NHL Players' Association actually surrendered years earlier when they failed to make the 2018 Olympics part of their collective agreement. That gave the power to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to decide that if he could not cut a deal with the International Olympic Committee about taking part in the Winter Games, then the players could not go.
When the IOC said it would no longer cover the players' insurance and travel costs starting with the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, Bettman pulled the plug. This was too much on top of the IOC's refusal to give the NHL and the players any compensation for interrupting the season or even permission to add the Olympic logo to the league's marketing efforts.
Bettman knew he wouldn't have any trouble with his owners over this. Most of them hated the idea of breaking up the season and risking injury to their players. All for what they saw as minimal promotional value, except for Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010, when the hockey games could be scheduled favourably for North American television.
Worst of all in the owners' eyes, this was done essentially for free. Free, to them, is a word that only applies to arena ownership and/or rent and taxes.
Nevertheless, some players talked about defying their owners and the league and showing up anyway. Ovechkin did this louder and longer than anyone. But when the International Ice Hockey Federation, which came off as a helpless bystander in this saga, told the NHL it would not allow players with NHL contracts on the ice in South Korea, even Ovechkin knew he was finished.
Late Thursday night, the Capitals issued a statement from Ovechkin. For once, this was a player's statement that wasn't written by a lawyer, player agent or some other spin doctor.
When Ovechkin spoke about his sadness at not being able to play for Russia, team officials wisely sent it out as dictated:
"Our countries are now not allowed to ask us to play in the Olympics. Me, my teammates and all players who want to go all lose. So do all the fans of hockey with this decision that we are not allowed to be invited. NHL players in the Olympics is good for hockey and good for Olympics. It sucks that will we not be there to play!!"
Actually, that was not Ovechkin's best use of the colloquial term in the past two days. That came on Friday when he was asked how the Capitals, who again disappointed their fans in the playoffs last spring, will fare this season: "We're not gonna be suck this year."
There are no heroes in this story. No one needs to be reminded of the IOC's history of greed and corruption. Like a billionaire NHL owner looking for taxpayers to pay for his arena and taxes, the IOC doesn't want to pay its entertainers, despite collecting billions for their efforts. The NHL and its owners are right to refuse to play ball with the IOC if it's going to cost them money but you would have to be willfully blind not to see their lack of enthusiasm for the Games.
But the players need to look at themselves as well. It was their own long-standing indifference to union affairs that prevented them from having a legitimate shot at maintaining their presence at the Olympics, which began in 1998. In the 2005 collective agreement, both sides agreed to participate in the 2006 and 2010 Games as long as they could strike a deal with the IIHF, which represented the IOC.
However, the 2014 Olympics in Russia and the 2018 Games were not part of the 2005 agreement and they were not in the 2013 deal, either. The NHL did agree to go to Sochi in 2014 but that was it.
That is on NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, union staff and the players. If the players wanted to be in the Olympics badly enough they should have made sure they could pin Bettman down with the labour contract. After all, the commissioner had a history of telling the players he and the owners would gladly sign up for the Olympics if they extended the past two collective agreements.
On the surface, the Olympics only concern the elite players, a minority of the NHLPA members. But the rest of the players love them, too. It means a nice long vacation every four years during the dog days of the season.
Both the union and the NHL appear to believe skipping the 2018 Games is a one-off. The owners are interested in the 2022 Games because they are in China, where the NHL is in the midst of a marketing push. On the players' side, there is no doubt the NHLPA will make this part of collective bargaining, perhaps in 2019, when the players can opt out of the current agreement.
However, NHL officials have said the IOC told them their participation in the 2022 Games hinged on them showing up in South Korea. Then again, big guns such as the NBC network have yet to weigh in, so China is not out of the question yet.