Watching the NHL shun Olympic hockey…

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Watching the NHL shun Olympic hockey…
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Free advertising is good.  Someone should tell Gary Bettman this so that he stops hinting at the end of a relationship between the NHL and Olympic hockey, a relationship that may very well save his sport.

North America has been captivated this past fortnight by Olympic hockey matchups that have inspired patriotism and inspiration while reminding us (Americans, mainly) that this game really does kick ass when it is played with passion and at a high level.  And now the United States and Canada prepare to play the biggest game of the Vancouver games as they square off in the gold medal game today at noon.

The countries’ first matchup, last Sunday in the group round, was the most-watched hockey game in the US since 1973 when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals to win the title.  The United States-Canada matchup had more viewers than last year’s Stanley Cup Final between Pittsburgh and Detroit, a game 7 that featured the league’s brightest star: Sidney Crosby.

MSNBC drew 8.2 million viewers to a network that does not broadcast in HD and is not available in all homes.  According to NBC, this was the second highest draw since the network’s 2008 election night coverage and its third highest rating behind debate coverage from that election year. 

With these great numbers, one must ask the question, why would the NHL think this whole Olympic hockey thing could be bad?  Any publicity is good publicity, right?  Commissioner Gary Bettman has been reluctant to extend any commitment to the two-week Olympic break further than the Vancouver games.

Bettman has yet to commit to the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia and has cited the difficulty associated with shutting down operations for two weeks and what they lose in attention, attendance and competitive balance.  In January, Bettman said this:

“It’s difficult for any business, any league, to shut down for two weeks with the attendant loss of attention and everything that flows from it and there are competitive issues.”

Maybe it’s me, but I don’t get it.  They still play the same number of NHL games in a year.  Yeah, it’s a little more compacted and the flow is interrupted making for a hectic run of the last 20 games leading into the playoffs, but everyone has the same disadvantage there.  I get the competitive issues part, too.  Bettman notes in the same interview that not every team has the same number of players competing in the games, so certain teams may reunite more beat up, well-rested or out of sync.

However, the one point that Commissioner Bettman and I will never agree on is the loss of attention.  What more do you want for your league and your sport than to have the attention of the world squarely on hockey for most of the last two weeks?  The dream matchup of USA vs. Canada twice in two weeks could not be any better for the NHL.  The caveat is that NBC also carries the NHL and can cross promote the NHL with the Olympics, something that would not happen if ABC, CBS or whomever had the television rights.  Additionally, rabid and casual fans alike will  be able to hear the same announcing teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs making the transition from Vancouver to the NHL seemless for the league, the network and the fans.

So what does it come down to?  Why is Bettman so reluctant to make this a permanent arrangement and continue the relationship with Olympic hockey by keeping NHL players in the games?  What’s the answer to most questions that are on this public of a stage? 

Money.

The biggest thorn in the side of the NHL when operations shut down is that they don’t make any money by having their own fans in their buildings and having their own broadcasts over the air.  But the piercing blow is that they have to watch their sport make boatloads of money and get better ratings than the league for two weeks while they see no part of that revenue.  Top that off with the fact that the Olympics is essentially using their employees to have all this commercial success. 

Imagine having your business shut down, loaning your employees to another corporation for two weeks and then sitting back on a two-week vacation to watch them have more success than you?  It would hurt your pride, wouldn’t it?  But it would hurt your wallet even more.

What Bettman and the NHL’s brass fail to realize is that this is all good for the league despite the immediate negative consequences.  The game is getting more attention than it has for years, finally showing a complete recovery from the lockout of 2004-05 when the league lost an entire season and was shut down for over three-hundred days.  The current economic crisis facing the NHL is more related to our country’s economic recession as opposed to lingering effects from the lockout.

What’s good for the game is good for the league. 

If hockey picks up casual fans who are inspired by the way they see the athletes perform when representing their country that should hypothetically translate into NHL fans who will love the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I consider myself a casual fan.  I couldn’t tell you the best player on each team or even tell you who leads each division.  But I can tell you that I was on the edge of my seat when the US played Canada last Sunday.  I can tell you that I jumped off of my couch, yelled and clapped (to the point where I startled my daughter, Emma) when Ryan Kesler scored the empty net goal that sealed the win.  I can also tell you that I will be sure to watch today’s gold medal game and tell everyone else I know to do the same.

Will I continue to watch NHL hockey with a greater level of interest?  I like to think that I will, but I can’t make any promises.  However, there are millions of casual fans out there that are in the same boat as me.  If I were the NHL, would I take my chances that a decent percentage of them will become fans for the long haul?  I’d like my chances and that is why Bettman and the league should keep this relationship going.  Gains will ultimately be made and fans will connect with the spirit of the game that they experienced in watching the Olympic competition.  No one can argue that Olympic competition is good for the game of hockey.

In January, Bettman said, “. . .We have to decide . . . is it worth it?”

What’s good for the game is good for the league.

You bet it’s worth it.


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