By Allan Muir
It hasn’t been a banner weekend for those hoping the NHL and its players will take part in the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi.
First, there was IIHF president Rene Fasel on Hockey Night In Canada suggesting that “ego from some people in North America” was the main barrier standing in the way of NHL participation, adding, somewhat smugly, “I think Gary [Bettman] has no choice but to come to Sochi.”
It’s not like Fasel was ambushed by the question from CBC’s Scott Russell. He had to know it was coming. And this wasn’t just an inelegantly worded response from an English-as-a-second-language bureaucrat. Fasel recognizes that the players want to go to Sochi and that more than a few are planning to head over next February with or without the league’s permission. Like George Costanza, he feels like he has hand in this relationship.
But for this thing to truly happen, Fasel needs the full cooperation of Bettman and the NHL’s Board of Governors. And that’s something no one should ever take for granted.
Fasel is no political novice. This is a guy who has been the head of the IIHF for 18 years, nearly as long as Bettman’s been running the show in New York. So why is he acting like one just days before the IIHF and the NHL are scheduled to meet in an effort to come to an agreement on Sochi?
It was a stunningly clumsy decision by a man who should understand that at his own peril he makes Bettman look like a powerless fool.
Then came news of the final qualifiers for the Olympic hockey tournament: Austria and, for the first time ever, Slovenia.
On the surface, that seems like a coup for the NHL. Two of its marquee stars, league-leading scorer Thomas Vanek and Stanley Cup hero Anze Kopitar, would be eligible to compete in the event.
But was that really the best-case scenario for the NHL?
Hardly. Because Austria and Slovenia in Sochi means there will be no Italy. No France. And for the first time in 6o years, no Germany.
It’s not that those countries are hockey powerhouses whose presence would make for a more compelling tournament. They’re all fringe participants. None of them could have counted on bringing over a true NHL star to bolster their lineups in Sochi.
But they are economic giants compared to Slovenia and Austria. Any of those three, or even Great Britain or Japan who were in the mix recently, would have meant bigger television markets and greater marketing opportunities for the league.
And that, not the greater glory of Canada or the US or mother Russia, is why the NHL is even willing to discuss putting a two-week break into its schedule and furloughing 600 non-Olympic players. It’s all about selling the NHL brand to an audience of heathens it holds captive for 12 days every four years.
Sure, there’s a chance some 10-year-old in Feldkirch will be inspired by watching Vanek and the Austrian Dream Team try to write their own Miracle ending against Patrick Kane or Pavel Datsyuk, and maybe 10 years down the road he’s tearing it up for the Blue Jackets, the vanguard of army of young Austrian hockey ubermensch.
But Slovenia’s entire population is less than two million, and fewer than 1,000 of those good souls play hockey. Austria (which shares its southern border with Slovenia, for the geographically challenged) is home to less than nine million souls, or about 11 percent of what Germany could have brought to the table. Not a lot of fruit down either of those paths.
In the end, these events probably won’t add up to much more than another couple of bumps on a road that’s already been long and difficult. But they illustrate that nothing about Olympic participation should be taken for granted until a deal is actually signed.