New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist came home from an “awesome” Sochi Olympics with a silver medal. New York Islanders captain John Tavares returned with a season-ending knee injury.
The different Olympic outcomes for the National Hockey League All-Stars illustrates the debate on whether the NHL should continue to participate. Proponents say it boosts the league’s visibility and that players love it. Opponents, including some club owners, argue that it’s bad business and risks players’ health. League plays begins tonight after a 17-day break for the Games.
NHL players not attending would hurt the business of the Olympics and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC network, which in June 2011 agreed to pay $4.38 billion to retain U.S. television rights to the Games through 2020, but wouldn’t affect the league, said Brad Adgate, director of research for New York-based media-buying agency Horizon Media Inc.
“There’s no halo effect,” Adgate said in a telephone interview. “It’s not like suddenly 25-plus million people watched this, so we’ll have 25-plus million people watch the Stanley Cup Finals. That hasn’t happened.”
The league and players union together have to agree on whether it will participate. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week at a Sochi news conference that a decision on the 2018 Pyeongchang Games in South Korea could come in the next six months. Don Fehr, head of the NHL Players’ Association, said he had no timetable for a decision.
The Olympic sport is popular with television viewers. Canada’s overtime victory over the U.S. in the gold medal game four years ago in Vancouver was watched by an average 27.6 million, the most-watched hockey broadcast since 1980.
Lundqvist, who led the Swedish team to the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games, said he told Fehr last week in Sochi that “I love everything about the Olympics,” and that continued participation is the obvious choice.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Lundqvist said in an interview a day before the Swedes lost 3-0 to Canada in the gold-medal game. “This is so important for the good of hockey and the league. A lot of new fans watch the games here, and we’re going to Asia next time, so it’s a whole new market.”
Tavares, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, tore the medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee during Canada’s quarterfinals victory over Latvia. The 23-year-old forward was ranked third in the NHL with 66 points heading into the Olympics.
“Obviously you can’t replace a guy like him, but I think everyone is going to get an opportunity to pick up the slack,” Islanders forward Colin McDonald said. “Hopefully guys are looking forward to it.”
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told reporters in Sochi that having the league’s players at the Olympics is good for the sport’s visibility, but pointed out that NHL ticket sales and television ratings have not increased after past Olympics.
“As a practical business matter, for the clubs individually, the Olympics have no tangible positive effect,” Daly said.
Allan Walsh, whose Octagon sports agency represents 23 of the 148 NHL players who went to Sochi, said all of his clients support staying in the Olympics and that the league benefits from the global coverage of Olympic hockey, both on television and social media.
He cited the preliminary-round matchup in Sochi between the U.S. and Russia, won by the Americans in a shootout, which “dominated sports and Olympic coverage for 48 hours.”
“Every second of national broadcast coverage of Olympic hockey is a glorified television commercial for the NHL’s product internationally,” Walsh said in a telephone interview.
“Ticket prices can only be raised so much, you can only have so many outdoor games in a season,” he said. “Really, the future of the game is international.”
NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said on a conference call last week that NBC has told both the NHL and the union that it would prefer to have the league’s players in Pyeongchang. NBC in April 2011 extended its NHL broadcast rights in a 10-year deal worth $2 billion, people familiar with the agreement said at the time. The accord will expire in 2021.
When asked what the NHL’s absence might mean to NBC, Lazarus said: “I can’t answer that question, and I hope I don’t ever have to.”
He might have to if Philadelphia Flyers Chairman Ed Snider’s views win out. Snider told reporters in early February that “if I had my way, we’d never go to the Olympics.”
“I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off,” he said. “How can anybody be happy breaking up your season? No other league does it, why should we? There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.”
The players see positives. Pierre McGuire, a hockey analyst for NBC and a former NHL coach, said on the Feb. 20 conference call with Lazarus that he has never met an NHL player who did not want to be an Olympian.
McGuire also pointed to that U.S.-Russia shootout in Sochi in which T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues scored the winning goal.
“That was one of the most magical moments you’ll ever see,” he said. “Without National Hockey League players at the Olympics, I don’t know if you can have those moments, I really don’t.”
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