It's getting very, very hard to sympathize with the National Hockey League when it comes to Olympic participation.
For a while, it was easy. The International Olympic Committee was on the other side of the table, an organization that makes FIFA look like Amnesty International by comparison. Pick your toxicity: The bottomless corruption? The embarrassing attempts to remain apolitical while operating a wholly political event? The bidding process that rewards the municipality that diverts the most essential public funds to build a velodrome?
How about this one: Believing that a professional sport league -- one that shuts down its regular season and loans its assets to the Winter Games -- should choke on the Olympic spirit rather than ask for any tangible benefits from the relationship.
Which is absurd.
Hence, the NHL was on the side of good and light in its tussle with the IOC. Since 1998, the league's players had made the Olympic men's hockey tournament every four years the greatest series of best-on-best events we've ever seen, but the league never gained anything substantial from it. It didn't share in the profits. It didn't have its branding on site for the Games. Moments like Sidney Crosby's golden goal in 2010 might as well have happened on a different plane of existence; the NHL still can't use video of it for any purpose.
The NHL drew more sympathy when the IOC inexplicably decided to pull back its fundamental funding for NHL players -- things like charter flights, accommodations and insurance -- ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. (The International Ice Hockey Federation's attempt to scare up money to bridge that gap was too little, too late in 2017.)
Given all of this, the NHL's decision not to participate in the Pyeongchang Games seemed reasonable. The owners had complained for years that there was nothing in it for them. Now, there really wasn't, especially when you factor in the league's apathy toward South Korea as a potential new market.
So the 2018 men's hockey tournament was held with non-NHL talent, which is like dining at a three-Michelin star restaurant one night, and then pretending your frozen dinner will be just as tasty the next. Ratings tanked. No one cared. Well, the Germans cared. But that was about it.
If commissioner Gary Bettman's master plan was to scare the IOC into submission after seeing a woeful non-NHL tournament, it sounds like it has been accomplished. Last week, there was a meeting between the NHL, NHLPA and Olympic organizers where the IOC came crawling back to the league ahead of the 2022 Beijing Games. It proposed restoring previous funding levels and exploring partnerships on everything from media rights to promotional opportunities. The IOC appeared, in a word, humbled.
"I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised. We had an inkling coming in that they wanted to do something big. [IIHF president] Rene Fasel has been working behind the scenes for a long time, trying to put something together," NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider told ESPN this week.
"There's no question that last Olympic tournament has to play into it. When you see the excitement around our guys being there, what it creates. Having gone through years of having the best players in the world playing on that stage, and you take a step back, it's just not the same."
News of these concessions stoked fervent optimism from hockey media and fans. Last month, Bettman said that shutting down the season was "extraordinarily disruptive" -- even though the NHL will probably do it for the next World Cup of Hockey -- and that "we're very comfortable with not going" to the 2022 Olympics. What about if the owners gobbled a bit more of the Olympic pie?
"The meeting that we had with the IOC and the IIHF was very positive. It was a big step. A big gesture. Goes a long way to addressing the concerns. To have the ability to promote the best 200 players in the world going to Beijing, and capitalizing on that, would be good for everyone going around," said Schneider. "Look, we scratched the surface. It wasn't diving into the minutia, into the details. But they talked about creating a partnership with the league and the players."
What else could the owners ask for?
"I'm not really sure there's any value -- at least for the League -- in getting into a 'what would it take' hypothetical discussion," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to ESPN this week. "Suffice it to say, if given the option in a vacuum, Olympic participation is not something that our Board currently supports. There isn't really anything the IOC, the IIHF, or the two together could offer to do to change that view."
In other words, the negotiations took a step forward ... right into a brick wall called "the NHL's true intentions."
And this is where my sympathy grows thin for the league.
It's become abundantly clear that Olympic participation is nothing more than a collective bargaining chip for the NHL. We started to see the cracks in the façade back in 2016, when the NHL offered its players the chance to compete in the Pyeongchang Games in exchange for an extension of the current CBA, which expires on Sept. 15, 2022. The players laughed that off. "All of a sudden they don't mind having a two-week break in the NHL for a three-year collective bargaining agreement," Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic viciously said at the time.
Now, we see the endgame even more clearly. The NHL believes that Olympic participation in February 2022 is inexorably tied to a CBA that expires in September 2022.
The NHLPA, meanwhile, can read a calendar.
"We're of the mindset that this falls under this CBA and should be left out of [the new one]," said Schneider. "It would be extremely unfortunate if we end up coming to an agreement on a CBA some time in 2021 and we said no to the Olympics. I think that would be very sad for all of us."
It makes sense that the NHL would want to lock in a new CBA (instead of what it usually does, which is to lock out). There's a new TV rights deal on the horizon. A new franchise in Seattle is on the launchpad. And, frankly, the league is very healthy under the parameters of the current agreement, to the point where there might not be an all-out labor war.
I asked Daly about the NHLPA's contention that the league is using Olympic participation as a carrot for a CBA extension.
"If that's how that is how the PA wants to frame the issue, they are entitled to do that. We have been consistent in our position from the start. We need a reason to recommend to our Board that there will be value in us shutting down our business for two-plus weeks to allow our best players to participate in a non-NHL tournament halfway around the world," said Daly. "That likely would involve a broader discussion on multiple issues related to international competition, and a longer-term international calendar of events, that might include agreements -- among all parties -- to participate in multiple Olympic Games. And that may well involve an agreement on a CBA extension."
On this issue, I side with the NHLPA. Using the next CBA to settle an issue that falls under the current agreement defies logic. But then there's a lot that defies logic here: For example, the NHL has been laying the groundwork in the Chinese market for a few years, having played preseason games in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. Putting a spotlight on the players in the nation's most important moment for winter sports -- and China has made a commitment to get 300 million people playing winter sports -- would seem like an obvious move to bust open that market.
"We made a commitment with the league to grow the game in China. We've had a presence there," said Schneider. "They've talked about hockey being the most important sport for them in the Olympics."
When it comes to the CBA, there is some common ground. Both the league and the players want to establish a calendar for international play that could include the Olympics, World Cups and regular-season games played overseas. "We're talking about 2026 in Italy. We're talking about future World Cups. Future regular and preseason games in Europe and China. There's a much larger conversation going on here," said Schneider.
In the smaller conversation about the 2022 Games, there's finally some good news. The IOC seems poised not only to restore previous funding levels, but open up previously untappable marketing opportunities for the NHL. Back in 2017, Daly talked about needing a "game-changer" in this negotiation to get the players back in the Olympics. There's at least a chance that we're nearing one.
If the IOC follows through on its vows, the owners start losing their excuses. The façade crumbles. Everyone will see this battle wasn't about insurance costs or video rights or the ability to sell an Ovechkin Team Russia jersey -- or is it still Olympic Athletes From Russia? -- at the NHL store in Manhattan. It's about squeezing a pressure point on the NHLPA. And it's hard to sympathize with that.
From the very confusing Central Division:
Folks we have another jersey foul pic.twitter.com/WZbweMG3tU— Hawkey Brah (@hawkeybrah) February 12, 2020
There's really only one reasonable explanation for a Minnesota fan getting Patrick Kane's name and number on his Wild jersey, so we'll just go ahead and ponder what silly thing he and his buddy from Chicago wagered on, and how badly he lost the bet.
Three Things About The Sedins
1. There's a constant harangue from hockey fans that our sport doesn't get its due, and that's never more evident than with the legacy of Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. Imagine, if you will, identical twins who set records playing quarterback and wide receiver in the NFL. Or an identical twin pitcher and catcher battery that could signal pitches without even using a sign. Or Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, except identical twins.
In other words, the Sedins were one of the most unique acts in the history of professional sports. No one was ever like them before, and likely no one will ever be like them again. (The odds of being drafted to the same team would make it a near impossibility.) We wish they were the household names for casual sports fans that they ought to have been.
2. The Sedins had their numbers retired on Wednesday night in an absolutely outstanding pregame ceremony before the Vancouver Canucks shut out the Chicago Blackhawks. The highlight of highlights: Former Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa's roast of the twins, which spanned from their candy addictions to his claim that their "sonar" on the ice was actually due to the Sedins wearing illegal earpieces. Classic stuff.
3. I've seen some polls and analysis this week on whether the Sedins are Hall of Famers. Frank Seravalli wrote that the Sedins "are Hall of Fame people. They might not be Hall of Fame players." Pass It To Bulis probably had the right take two years ago in saying that "individually, they're on the bubble of the Hockey Hall of Fame" but that "as an utterly unique pair of careers in NHL history, they're going into the Hall of Fame."
The real question is that if the Sedins get in as a package deal, would the Hall of Fame put them on the same plaque, as it should be? (For the record, Henrik Sedin told me a few years that the twins don't want that to happen if they get in.)
Of course, the most chaotic scenario would be for Henrik to get in while Daniel doesn't, leading to an annual mystery about whether this will be the year the twins are reunited. Which honestly sounds like something the Hall of Fame, in their clandestine little Stonecutters voting caucuses, might actually do.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
This week's episode was one of our most popular of the year, and for good reason: Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree joined us to talk about his remarkable life, new documentary and issues with race in today's NHL. Plus, Olympics and trade deadline talk. Listen to it here, and make sure to rate and review.
Also, for next week: Emily Kaplan and I are doing a special "call-in show" ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Leave us your deadline questions at 860-516-1029 and we'll answer them on next week's episode!
Winners and Losers of the Week
Winner: Everyone who helped save Jay Bouwmeester's life
The hockey world is still reeling from watching the St. Louis Blues defenseman collapse on their bench after a cardiac emergency on Tuesday night. So here's to the teammates who recognized the emergency. Here's to the Honda Center medical staff that used a defibrillator to revive him. Here's to the doctors at UC Irvine Medical Center who treated him. Here's to the NHL, which had the good sense to postpone the Blues' game against the Ducks. Here's to the Vegas Golden Knights, who had counselors on hand for the Blues after they traveled there on Wednesday. And here's to Jay Bouwmeester, who hopefully recovers from this frightening incident.
Loser: Those bitten by the injury bug
In the last week, injuries have claimed Connor McDavid, Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, Shea Weber and Nazem Kadri. That's one goalie short of a heck of a starting lineup, all of whom are out of commission for a considerable amount of time.
Winner: Darren Pang
The longtime hockey commentator, working for Fox Sports Midwest, did an admirable job in the moments after Bouwmeester collapsed, conveying important information and capturing the emotion of the moment.
Loser: Jeremy Roenick
The former NBC analyst handled his dismissal for inappropriate comments about a co-worker about as well as you'd expect from Jeremy Roenick.
Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
We featured them here last week, and will continue to do so until they're not the caliber of team that is on an eight-game winning streak and has two regulation losses since Dec. 21. Welcome back, juggernaut. We missed you.
Loser: Washington Capitals
What's going on here? The Caps are 3-4-0 since the All-Star break, and lost two straight games at home to the Flyers and Islanders by a combined score of 12-5. It's enough to have some Washington fans openly wondering what Gerard Gallant's up to these days. (For the record, that's a wacky level of overreaction.)
Winner: Paul Maurice
The Jets coach signed a multiyear contract extension after Winnipeg somehow managed to stay in the playoff hunt after losing four of six defensemen in the offseason. And by "somehow" we mean "were propped up by Connor Hellebuyck." And that's how coaches get new contracts.
Loser: The Seattle Kraken or Whatever
Paul Maurice would have been an interesting choice as Seattle's first head coach, given his history with GM Ron Francis. Of course, Peter Laviolette also has some history with Francis as well ...
Winner: Bad Ducks
The plot of the new Disney+ "The Mighty Ducks" reboot starring Lauren Graham was revealed this week. "The new 'Mighty Ducks' is set in present day Minnesota, where the Mighty Ducks have evolved from scrappy underdogs to an ultra-competitive, powerhouse youth hockey team. After 12-year-old Evan is unceremoniously cut from the Ducks, he and his mom Alex (Graham) set out to build their own ragtag team of misfits to challenge the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs culture of competitive youth sports."
Some people noted this sounds a bit like the "Cobra Kai" series that followed up on "The Karate Kid." Others declared they loathed the idea of the Ducks coming back at all. But it sounds pretty awesome, to be honest: The Mighty Ducks becoming what they hated the most. Now, are we getting a Josh Jackson cameo or what?
Major League Baseball caused a stir this week by proposing a new playoff format that included higher-seeded teams picking their first-round opponents in a televised event. If that sounds familiar, it's because hockey did it first. The Southern Professional Hockey League used this format in 2017.
Alas, the SPHL no longer uses the "Challenge Round" format. After two seasons, they found that the travel logistics were too difficult for a league that mostly moves around by bus. "I thought it was quite interesting to hear that MLB was considering a playoff format similar to our Challenge Round. I know our fans had a great time with it, and the uniqueness of picking your opponent was something that brought a new excitement to our playoffs," SPHL commissioner Doug Price told ESPN this week.
For the record, I love the concept, but the execution isn't always there for it. Teams by and large are just going to pick the teams they're seeded to face, lest they give extra motivation to a lower seed they select as "more beatable." (The SPHL had one such upset in this format.) Where things could get interesting is if one lower seed has recently suffered a major injury that leaves them vulnerable. Then there's a tactical advantage to the format.
New Ottawa Senators CEO Jim Little discussed the team's horrible attendance. "The one big fix we have to make, is our season ticket base is very low. We're amongst the lowest in the league. Number one, over time, we have to get the fan base back. And that's not a quick fix."
Taking a look at the Air Force Academy outdoor game branding, which has not been without controversy.
Scorching take: "Column: Avalanche hockey at the Air Force Academy? No thanks"
Behold, Bender the Hockey Pup.
Interesting look at how coronavirus is affecting hockey stick production.
Ken Campbell likes the Stanley Cup Playoff format just the way it is, thank you very much.
Fun piece by Thomas Drance in which the Sedins break down some of their best shifts. ($)
The Washington Post does a deep dive on Mark Pavelich of the "Miracle on Ice," violent crime and brain trauma.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Ladies and gents, the 2020 NHL trade deadline tiers (and some wild cards).