SOMETIMES, I FEEL a little bad for Gary Bettman. The Winter Classic is a hit, another guy gets all the credit. Baseball, basketball and football all utilize replay, and few remember that it was his NHL that first initiated the "Situation Room" in Toronto.
Yank NHL players from the Olympics, though, and who does the safe from 100 floors above land squarely on? Him, that's who. Not the owners whose investment he seeks to protect. Not the players who could have swapped participation for collective bargaining concessions back in December. Not the International Olympic Committee, which has steadfastly refused to share the advertising revenue it gains by the big names playing in its tournament, and again laughed off Bettman's suggestion that hockey be included in the Summer Games.
No, this is all about Gary again. Greedy little Gary. Not the owners cheering the decision behind closed doors. Not the crocodile-teared stars publicly expressing disappointment, even outrage, while ignoring the obvious, that the players closed the door on their own hands.
The possibility of a player revolt over the next 12 months will be intriguing to watch. Already some members of Canadian media have taken Sidney Crosby to task for his comparatively passive response to the NHL announcement. Sid's "I haven't even thought that far to be honest; it's a difficult situation to be in" doesn't quite match the disdainful defiance expressed by Russian Alex Ovechkin upon hearing the NHL's decision.
"Somebody going to tell me don't go?" said Ovechkin, sounding more than a little like De Niro's taxi driver. "I don't care. I just go."
You talking to me? You talking to me?
Would the league fine him? Suspend him? Would the Caps dock their captain's pay? Owner Ted Leonsis said no at first, but then said check back with me later. Would he not be obliged to? For if not, then how could you stop any other player from taking a hiatus from the team that pays his salary to play for the country in which he honed his lucrative skills?
Not surprisingly, the NHLPA condemned the NHL's decision anyway, calling it shortsighted, especially given that the next two Winter Olympics will be played in South Korea and China. "A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia," read the release, forgetting for a moment perhaps that it was a Nagano hotel room that USA players so infamously trashed back in 1998 - an odd strategy to introduce the game to the Far East.
That the Japanese quickly forgot the incident - "I think we forget because ice hockey is not so popular," Tadahiro Jimbo, an editor for Mainichi Newspapers, told Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News before the 2010 games in Vancouver - is further evidence the game didn't spread through Asia back then.
"If it was figure skaters," said old Jimbo. "It would be different."
Here's what is overlooked: Unlike baseball and basketball, hockey was already being played professionally in Europe before 1998. The trickle of players then has become a steady stream since, permeating into juniors and the college ranks. Ivan Provorov has been over here since he was 13. Check out most NCAA rosters and you are likely to find at least a sampling of Swedes, Finns and Czechs. It's never a bad idea to find a new continent to spread into, but if 1998 didn't move the needle, why would anyone think a couple of weeks in Pyeongchang will?
Here's what is also often overlooked: The NHL's television deal with NBC is a pure partnership, which means the two split the revenue. Thus when the NHL takes a three-week break - inconveniently after the Super Bowl and before baseball games begin - they cough up three weeks of national-television revenue. NBC would love to see NHL players again in the Olympics - it bought the broadcast rights, after all - but that check has already been cashed by the IOC.
Bettman just wanted a little something extra for the effort. Either that, or a little relief from the players association, eliminating the 2019 opt-out clause and potentially extending the CBA through 2025. Said Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, "If we start giving up years or concessions for this Olympics, then every Olympics I'm sure something will open up if they said, 'If you want to go, we want this.' "
Fine. Then don't. But strike those self-serving words in your release, about how "NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly," and that "This is the NHL's decision, and its alone."
Because it clearly is not.
The game will survive. The players will, too. I'll miss Olympic hockey the way it has been since 1998. But like most of those millions of loyal hockey fans, I'll watch and root for my country, and for the budding stars who someday may not be allowed to go.
What I won't do is drop another safe on Bettman. Not this time, anyway.