For every controversial issue the National Hockey League (NHL) has faced, commissioner Gary Bettman always seems to be the target of the blame. If all the jeering and boos at each NHL Entry Draft weren’t enough, every hockey forum is filled with comments revolving around Bettman’s “greed and stupidity” [1]. Bettman is always the villain, and his decision to prohibit NHL players from attending the 2018 Olympics only worsens his image in the minds of hockey fans.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) met with Bettman and the NHL at the bargaining table for several weeks, discussing the various compensations that the NHL would want before it agreed to send its players [2]. At some point, the wrestling match between the two organizations ended in a stalemate. Neither side was willing to budge, and on 3 April 2017, Bettman officially closed the matter and stated that the NHL would not have the traditional two-week blackout to accommodate for the Olympics. He also stressed that players would be punished should they leave their teams.

As you might imagine, Bettman should expect louder boos this June when he tries to announce the 1st overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft—as he should.

Pyeongchang will be the first Olympic Games since Lillehammer in 1994 where NHL players will not be allowed to participate. The Olympics are heralded as the ultimate international hockey tournament, largely because NHL players compete in the event. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, for example, does not include all NHL talent, as their schedule conflicts with the Stanley Cup Playoffs, preventing players on playoff-contending teams from participating.

But is it really Bettman’s fault? The terms of the IOC’s offer were incredibly lacklustre. Laughably, the IOC stated that “the NHL had been offered the same conditions like in the Olympics before” [3], which couldn’t be more incorrect. Traditionally, the IOC had always agreed to pay for the players’ insurance and transportation costs to and from the Olympics. This year, however, the IOC, fearing a precedent that would force them to compensate other sports leagues, asserted that they would not cover any costs [4]. In comparison, for Sochi 2014, the IIHF and IOC spent $18 million and $14 million dollars respectively to cover the hefty costs of insurance and transportation. The IIHF was willing to pay the cost, but the NHL was reluctant to allow the largest hockey governing body to pay such expensive fees. The IOC also refused to give the NHL any media or marketing rights, meaning that in addition to the two-week blackout, the NHL would have been prohibited from using Olympic footage of its players for advertising purposes, and be forced to pay $32 million dollars towards insurance fees.

Unfortunately for the IOC, insurance is important. Despite what hockey fans want to think, our country does not own the rights to our hockey players. The NHL and its teams negotiate contracts with the players, and thereby pay for their hockey talent. The NHL and its owners then have to value whether going to the Olympics is worth it to them as an employer. From the owner’s perspective, if they allow their players to attend the Olympics, they risk the possibility of their players getting injured. Not only would that be a colossal blow to their team’s playoff chances, but the team itself would not be compensated at all should the players sustain any career-ending injuries. While fans argue that the Olympics showcase top hockey talent, the owners themselves have no incentive to consent to their players participating. It’s a simple and logical thought process: the owners have the assets, and they see no benefit in lending them out.

Critics of Bettman toss out phrases like “national pride,” “marketing the game worldwide,” and “insane Bettman greed” [5][6], all of which are absolutely absurd. In terms of national pride, it should be pretty obvious if the players truly want to play in the Olympics. Yet, the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) has remained silent on the issue. The NHL was even willing to accept the terms of the IOC, should the NHLPA extend their collective bargaining agreement to 2025 [7]. The NHLPA rejected the NHL’s offer, essentially implying that “national pride” really isn’t as important as salaries to the players. The NHL also sees little reason in expanding the sport for such a hefty sum of money. Hockey, unlike other sports, requires an extensive amount of infrastructure, an investment that is very unlikely to occur in South Korea. If there is little potential for growth, why would the NHL put money on the table? Bettman knows his odds and limits very well and it was smart of him not to give in.

If the IOC wants to lecture the NHL about developing a sport and being generous, the IOC’s board directors should perhaps first look into the mirror. The platform is supplied by the host country, and the players are supplied by various professional leagues and competitive circuits around the world, yet the IOC receives all the revenue from the event. And while the IOC claims that 90% of these profits go to funding sports programs around the world, none of the profit goes back to the host country, which would improve infrastructure and help to pay back debts. The IOC helps only to further establish programs that are already prominent, rather than encourage growth in more foreign sports. By that same logic, the NHL is simply trying to further cement its league in established North American markets, since the NHL is already behind in revenue, compared to the NFL, MLB, and NBA.

The IOC’s method of negotiation essentially places all of the responsibility onto the NHL, diverting the attention of hockey fans away from the terms of the offer itself. The IOC knows that the NHL is under pressure to say “yes” to the Olympics. After all, if the players leave to go to the Olympics regardless of the ruling, this could spell disaster for the NHL, as the league would air three weeks of hockey without its top stars. The league, however, remains unfazed. The IOC, upon hearing the NHL’s decision, has publically stated that the negotiation table is still open, perhaps realizing that its offer was not up to par.

The NHL is one of the most owner-oriented leagues in the world, which comes with its benefits. However, the drawback is that if you want to make a deal with Bettman, you must appease team owners.

If the IOC is unwilling to pay for insurance, then it should at least grant the NHL the right to market its own players. This allows the NHL to showcase to its viewers that it does indeed have the best players in the world. Moreover, each team would have access to Olympic highlights that it could use for advertising and promotions. If the players truly want to sacrifice their NHL playtime and paycheque to go play at the Olympics, then the NHLPA should extend the collective bargaining agreement for an extra three years, and the NHL will let the players go. The NHL isn’t the only organization involved in this decision. Every contract is a two-way street: the IOC and NHLPA cannot reasonably expect the NHL to give everything, gain nothing, and allow Bettman to take all of the blame.

The NHL’s decision was not a spontaneous one. It was provoked by months of frustrating negotiations with both the IOC and NHLPA. Rounds and rounds of talks all ended the same way. Neither the IOC nor the NHLPA were willing to pay, yet they expected the NHL to fund the $32-million dollar project? No thanks. The IOC and NHLPA can point fingers all they want, but the truth remains: they weren’t willing to offer anything, and now everyone will suffer the consequences.

Illustration: Hanlin Cheng

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