Commentary

NHL, don't walk away from Games

Updated: August 25, 2010, 9:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Yes, Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch had to wait in line outside GM Place at the Vancouver Olympics.

And the NHL couldn't get its own network accredited to cover the games.

And the league couldn't use any highlights from the Games on its website even though its own players were playing in the tournament.

And NHL GMs have had trouble gaining access and information about their players during the Olympics.

• More from Burnside: Will 2014 debate be CBA bargaining chip?

And the 2014 Sochi Games may not be on in prime time.

There are challenges to playing in the Olympics. Many, perhaps. But what a shining chance for the NHL to preserve something great and unique; what a shining chance to pay back the players and fans and the league itself by not giving in to the impulse to walk away from the Olympics because it's inconvenient.

Things this good aren't supposed to be easy. Things this good sometimes have to hurt a little bit.

"I do believe that there is a mixed sentiment among the clubs," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday at the World Hockey Summit. "There are some clubs that think going to the Olympics is a terrible idea under any circumstances."

So now we wait on the NHL to decide whether it will kill the Olympic hockey tournament as we have come to know it (and love it, quite frankly) or find a way to do the right thing and make the Olympic experience work even when the Games are far away.

Forget whatever happens to the Phoenix Coyotes and the collective-bargaining agreement talks; the NHL's decision on whether to continue its involvement in the Games looms as a watershed moment for Bettman and the league's owners.

Try to resolve whatever outstanding issues remain and continue to take part in the Olympics, and the owners will have revealed themselves as forward-thinking patrons of the game.

Decline to go, end the league's participation in the Olympics, and the owners will risk rebellion from their own players and a public-relations nightmare, especially after the soaring success in Vancouver this past February.

"To send anyone but the best, there's no way people will accept it because they've seen it. We've now been there and it's been successful Olympics. The drama is extraordinary," said John Furlong, the CEO of the Vancouver Games. "I think fans looking at this from a distance would look at this and say, 'Now listen, I know there's challenges and I know there are difficulties. Work them out. Work them out and make sure we have the best team at the Olympic Games.' That's what the fans would expect of the leaders that are involved in this."

In addressing the World Hockey Summit on Wednesday, Furlong warned the NHL that if it declines to take part in the Sochi Games, "You'll never be forgiven. Fans won't accept it."

Of all the various sessions and discussions at this week's summit, the Olympics discussion drew the most impassioned dialogue.

"Can we even consider the option that the NHL isn't going to be part of the Olympics?" asked Hockey Canada director Brian Cooper.

He cited some of the issues, including insurance costs, fatigue and the interruption to the NHL's season.

"All real issues, but the marketing value that the Olympics bring to the NHL, to the players, to the sport of hockey cannot be quantified in fact. It's priceless," he said.

Jamie Langenbrunner, who was part of Team USA's silver medal-winning team in Vancouver, said he believed the league has an "obligation" to go. Daniel Alfredsson echoed those sentiments, as do 95 percent of NHL players, according to a poll taken last year.

Later in the session, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke nearly flew out of his chair in discussing the issue. The architect of the 2010 United States squad that lost to Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game said he'd love to go back to the Olympics.

"I want to go, but it's not that simple, and we're letting it become an emotional issue in this room." he said during one particularly fervent part of the debate.

Those attending the summit were asked to raise their hands if they believed the NHL shouldn't go to Sochi and not a hand was raised. But these were the converted. They had listened to the post-mortem on the Vancouver Games and heard about the record television audiences around the world. They were told about how the gold-medal game peaked at 35 million viewers in the United States with an average audience of 27.6 million, numbers that exceeded the past two Super Bowls.

And they naturally assumed that you can draw a line from those successes to Sochi and beyond. They assumed this is good medicine for the game and the league.

"If you make those assumptions, you assume incorrectly," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters after the session. "I don't think, from a business standpoint, like a tangible business standpoint, it has any positive impact on our business at all, and in some cases, it has a negative impact. Virtually no tangible positive business impact at all. In some markets, you have a loss of momentum, a loss of interest in a market. If you go away for two weeks, or three weeks if we go to Sochi, a club might be on the bubble and it falls off the back pages of the papers for three weeks, and people don't even know when the team comes back.

.

"There are definitely pros to going to the Olympics, I'm not saying there aren't," Daly added. "But do those pros, for the National Hockey League and our clubs and our players, outweigh the cons? And that's an analysis you have to do."

For this relationship to work, the International Olympic Committee, International Ice Hockey Federation and broadcasters will have to do their best to address the NHL's concerns. IIHF president Rene Fasel will have to do a better job than he's done in the past in finding a way to address the issues.

But there will always be elements of the Olympics that will be distasteful to some owners -- the potential for injury and the disruption to the schedule. So, it will come down to Bettman and his appetite to sell his owners on the Olympics. He reminded his audience Wednesday that although he is seen as anti-Olympics, he was the one who first took the league to the Olympics in 1998.

When the dust settles on this one, we're guessing he'll be leading the NHL back in 2014.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.