NHL vs. Olympics: Going to Games is treat for players, troubling for owners

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SOCHI, Russia — Zdeno Chara is the captain of the Boston Bruins. He is making $8 million to play in the NHL this season. And he doesn’t take it lightly. When Slovakia asked him to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, he knew he would have to leave early to do it. He talked to teammates. He talked to his coach and his general manager, who talked to the owner.

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Zdeno Chara says carrying the flag for Slovakia into the Opening Ceremony is a "huge honor." (AP)

Eventually the Bruins came back with a question: Was it important to him?

“Of course,” he told them. “It’s a huge honor.”

And so they gave him their blessing. He missed a 3-2 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night, the kind of game in which a Norris Trophy defenseman might have made a difference. He arrived in Sochi on Friday and ducked into the door at Slovak Point, a refuge for Slovak athletes in a train station one stop from Olympic Park, and held a quick press conference in Slovak and English. He carried the flag for Slovakia on Friday night, and he will miss a game for the Bruins against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, too.

“I can’t thank them enough,” Chara said of the Bruins, wearing a red, white and blue Slovak jacket instead of black and gold. “Honestly, it’s a dream come true.”

This is what the Olympics mean to the players. This is also why the Olympics are a dilemma for the owners – why there was a battle over coming to Sochi and why there will be a battle over Pyeongchang in 2018. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs let Chara go early out of respect. But do you think he likes Chara playing elsewhere at all – risking injury, draining his 36-year-old batteries – let alone missing two games for a ceremony?

“If I had my way, we’d never go to the Olympics,” Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider said Thursday night.

Snider said he wouldn’t go to the Olympics even if they were in Philadelphia. He noted the NHL was the only league to interrupt its season for the Olympics. He called them ridiculous. He said he hated them.

“There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives,” Snider said. “The players wanted to play, and the league agreed. But as an owner, I personally don’t like it. It’s not good for our fans. It’s not good for our league. It changes the momentum. Everything about it is wrong.”

You can pick apart Snider’s comments. Sports leagues around the world interrupt their seasons for international competition all the time. The NHL’s owners interrupted the 2012-13 season for a lockout, and the league bounced back as if nothing happened. The Olympics might be bad for some fans in a narrow sense, if they directly hurt those fans’ favorite team somehow, but generally the Olympics please hardcore hockey fans and attract more casual sports fans to hockey than any other event. How is that bad for the league?

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Flyers owner Ed Snider pulled no punches when asked about sending NHLers to the Olympics. (AP)

But note that Snider isn’t alone – he’s just the rare owner who speaks his mind – and he’s the chairman of Comcast Spectacor, which is under the Comcast umbrella with NBCUniversal. NBC broadcasts the NHL and the Sochi Olympics in the United States.

Also note that the Flyers are an established, powerful team. How about, say, the Phoenix Coyotes, which the NHL bought out of bankruptcy in 2008, almost had to relocate and finally sold last year?

“I’m not thrilled about shutting down in February, which is a massive month for us here in Phoenix with out-of-town travelers, but it is what is,” said Anthony LeBlanc, a co-owner of the Coyotes and their president and chief executive officer. “You have to take the good with the bad. The bad is that we’re shutting down, which none of us are thrilled about. The good is, it’s a pretty exciting event.”

To the players, the Olympics are an achievement and experience. The players are happy to make sacrifices and take risks for no direct compensation. Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos suffered a broken tibia in November and tried hard to come back to play for Team Canada. Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky is fighting with the New York Islanders about an injury and his ability to represent Slovakia.

Think about how much it means to North Americans. Now think about how much it means to Europeans, who leave their countries to play in North America. “They are special guys from NHL,” said Slovak GM Otto Sykora. “They are big heroes, and this is just one chance to bring all together – one time in four years.” Before the NHL decided about Sochi, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin declared he would play for Russia in Russia no matter what.

People are amazed NHL players will sleep on small beds in spartan rooms in the Olympic Village, but they ask to. Marcel Aubut, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said Don Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, told him the players wanted to be treated like all the other Olympians. Fehr fought with the NHL for things like bigger towels in dressing rooms during labor negotiations, but he also has served on the board of the USOC. He gets the Olympics. He knows his constituents.

“I think all players are always going to push for the Olympics,” said defenseman Tomas Kaberle, an NHL veteran now playing in the Czech Republic. “That’s why we’ve got the union. They’re always going to stay behind us.”

To the owners, the Olympics are more trouble than they’re worth, especially when they’re outside North America. The owners are pausing play midseason to lend their high-priced assets to someone else’s tournament, sometimes halfway around the world. What’s in it for them? Not as much as you might think. Certainly not as much as they thought when the NHL started going to the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano. For all the talk about exposure and all the anecdotal evidence that the Olympics generate buzz about hockey, the league has reviewed the hard data.

“I don’t think from a business standpoint – from a tangible business standpoint – it has any positive impact on our business at all,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto in 2010. “And in some cases, it has a negative impact.”

The Olympics also create conflicts of interest. Chara. Stamkos. Visnovsky. On and on. What comes first – team or country? NHL executives and coaches deal with their own players for Olympic teams. Stamkos’ GM is Steve Yzerman, the executive director of Team Canada. He put Stamkos on the Canada roster and snubbed another Lightning star, Martin St-Louis, ticking him off. When the doctor didn’t clear Stamkos for Sochi, Yzerman decided to take St-Louis after all. How do you feel if you’re Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik?

The owners want to cash in on international hockey themselves. So do the players. The NHL has an international business plan, and the league and the union have a joint International Committee. The new collective bargaining agreement says they “shall continue to work together to jointly create and exploit other international projects and initiatives.” There will be more NHL games overseas. The World Cup likely will come back before the 2015-16 season. A champions’ league concept could be started, pitting NHL teams against top European teams.

That's nice. But it just wouldn't be the same. Chara knows what the Olympics mean. His father, Zdenek, represented Czechoslovakia as a Greco-Roman wrestler in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and helped make him an athlete. Chara has been to two previous Olympics himself. He left his team, waited through a flight delay and crossed the ocean to march and compete for no pay. Chara called it “a huge privilege” to carry the flag for his country and play in the Olympics.

The players will have to keep fighting for it.

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