February 19, 2014 at 2:49 am

Gregg Krupa

NHL and Olympics are meant to be one

Pavel Datsyuk (13) is a star with the Red Wings, but is honored with the opportunity to represent Russia. (Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images)

Sochi, Russia — Gary Bettman knows the NHL players want to play in the Olympics in four years. Nothing could be plainer.

And, Bettman may be many things. But he is not dumb, or unaware of what goes on in the league.

So when asked questions in the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Tuesday about what it will take to make sure the Winter Games have the best hockey players from around the world, he said what everyone knows.

“None of this moves forward, if it moves forward at all, if the players don’t want to play,” Bettman said.

“The reason we are here in the first instance is because this is a game with a history and a tradition of international competition, and our players, NHL players, love representing their countries.”

Bettman appeared at a news conference with three of the four parties to the decision, which they said could come within six months or soon thereafter.

Bettman and Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players Association, were separated on the dais by Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

As with all things at an Olympic Games, the conference occurred under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee, the fourth party.

The triumvirate all said that, unlike at Vancouver four years ago, when their acrimonious negotiation spilled out in public, earning the opprobrium of athletes and fans alike, in Sochi they will not discuss the specifics of playing at the 2018 PyeongChang Games.

“It’s about consensus,” Bettman said. “It’s about what makes sense to the organizing committee, to the IOC, to the IIHF, to the NHLPA and to the NHL.”

In other words, it is about the money.

And that is why this may be the last Olympics for the NHL

Players fit in

That would a shame. The show is fabulous, as it so often is when world-class hockey players play. The hockey is sometimes splendid, as it was when the USA faced Russia last weekend.

By playing in the Olympics, the NHL accomplishes what we desire in all-star games: pitting the best players in the sport against each other in a highly competitive atmosphere.

Take the interested parties one by one and see that, as usual, the players are acting less selfishly than anyone involved.

The PyeongChang Organizing Committee is hoping to have the best show, and to recoup as much of a massive investment by South Korea as it can. It helps to have a burnished brand like the NHL and the greatest athletes in each sport.

The IOC wants the players to help sustain the escalation of broadcasting fees. If the Games are to grow, someone must pay for it.

The IOC derives heavy antes from North Americans, who are the most devoted hockey fans. In much of Europe, even Sweden, which contributes heavily to the Red Wings lineup, soccer is king.

The IIHF wants the NHL players in the Games because, as the governing body for the sport around the world, it has no control over hockey where it matters most, North America. The IIHF would become far less relevant.

The members of the NHLPA just want to play. And as long as they are assured that insurance costs will not be onerous, their families can travel with them, media access is suitable and hospitality adequate, they are in.

And, by the way, as Fasel reminded us, the players are not paid and “they all live in the village.”

The arrangements are to what Fehr referred Tuesday.

“Basically, we have a significant time period in which we talk to players, digest what they have to say, figure out what they want and then they tell me what they would like to do and we try to make that happen,” Fehr said.

In Sochi, the players say, the arrangements all have provided for their desire to play and play hard for their countries.

You should have seen the Swedes during practice Tuesday. Some toughness in the corners.

It seems especially important to provide the opportunity in hockey, a true United Nations of a sport, where men from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Slovenia, Switzerland and other countries all play.

To a man, every player asked says they like the accommodations in the Olympic Village, the easy access to the venue, the quality of the facilities, the food. And they say, as they did in Vancouver, that one of the coolest aspects of it is meeting other world-class athletes from their country and other countries around the village, especially in the cafeteria.

“From a players’ standpoint, this has been an unbelievable experience,” said Niklas Kronwall, the Red Wings defenseman and captain of Sweden. “Sochi’s done an unbelievable job, the Russians have done a great job, of pulling everything together.

“We’ve had a tremendous experience, from the village, to the food, to the facilities. It’s been first class.”

Kronwall said he believes “it’s a given” the players want to play.

Money a factor

What is stopping it? The NHL is conspiring to do just that.

By devising, in effect, a world tournament of its own, the NHL hopes to strike a compromise between the player’s desire to play for their countries against the best in the world and the demands of some owners to maximize the financial haul.

Some owners like neither the two-week gap in the NHL schedule, when they cannot book rock concerts or tractor pulls each night, and the more densely concentrated schedule throughout the rest of the season that also prevents it.

You will hear from NHL fans that injuries to star players are a concern, and the NHL owners may trumpet that, too.

But the fans really mean it, and one is left to wonder if for the owners it really is much more about the money.

For what a partnership with the IOC forbids is the use of NHL marks on licensed equipment and souvenirs for sale in arenas and on display around the ice. In a world tournament of its own devising, the NHL could own everything, rights to video, copyrights to printed material and other intellectual property.

More importantly, the NHL also would have the broadcast rights.

At the Olympics, that all belongs to the IOC. And there is no sport agency in the world more hawkish on its intent to control its brand and more demanding in that regard.

Passion for home

What I like about the Olympics is that while they are not pure athletics anymore, they are as close as we can get. And I still think it is of value to the NHL and NBA to be associated with such a standard.

The players know, too, about the genuine thrill of bringing home a gold medal for country, for family.

And besides, Pavel Datyuk said it all two seasons ago after the Red Wings were bounced out of the playoffs and he packed his duffle bags and headed off to a World Championship to play for his homeland Russia, a country he plainly loves.

“Sure I go,” he said with a shrug. “I’m a hockey player.

“I play hockey.”

Women’s game

Women’s hockey isn’t in danger of being kicked out of the Winter Olympics because of a lack of competition, the head of the sport’s international governing body said Tuesday.
“That will never happen,” IIHF president Rene Fasel said. “I can guarantee that will never happen.”
Women’s hockey has long been dominated by the United States and Canada, who play for the gold medal Thursday for the fourth time in five Winter Games. Between them, the North American rivals have won every Olympics and World Championship, and only once has another team even reached the championship game.
The lack of competition at Vancouver in 2010 prompted then-IOC president Jacques Rogge to say, “We cannot continue without improvement.”
Fasel noted Tuesday that the Vancouver Games included an 18-0 victory by Canada over Slovakia, among other blowouts. There have been no double-digit blowouts in Sochi.
“It’s much better, but we are not there,” Fasel said, already looking ahead to the 2018 Winter Games. “I really hope that in PyeongChang we will have a better result, but we have to work very hard.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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