The Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament in Sochi is just a few days from getting underway, and coaches and players from all walks of hockey have finally assembled in Russia and begun practices this week ahead of group play.
This is no small stage. Russia is perhaps one-half of the Big Two of international hockey, right alongside Canada -- not even the Americans have yet carved out the kind of international legacy those two enjoy. The Sochi Games are the first Olympics to take place on Russian soil in some time, and the Men's Hockey Tournament is their centerpiece event.
While the Stanley Cup is the pinnacle of the NHL, Olympic gold might have it beat as the pinnacle of hockey. The Olympics provide the kind of stage that can really only be rivaled by the Stanley Cup Finals in North America and, internationally, offer a tournament and exposure that the NFL and MLB have no answer to. It's the most marketable sport in a given Winter Olympics, and the competition and skill on display are something just not seen outside the latter rounds of the NHL postseason, if anywhere.
So enjoy it while it lasts.
This NHL season really has two tentpole events: the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Olympics. There's no All-Star game this season and the Stadium Series and Winter Classic are really just very fancy ways of vying for a pair of standings points.
Since getting the blessing of NHL executives for player participation in the Sochi Games, the Men's Hockey Tournament has been greatly, greatly anticipated.
The Olympics might be the premier event in international hockey, but they hardly fatten the NHL's coffer, if at all. And that's why we probably won't see NHL players at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
The NHL has plenty of reasons to dislike the participation of its players in a tournament they cannot control, and it's hard not to see eye to eye with them on certain points.
For one thing, NHL owners shell out a lot of money on player salaries. A lot. Player payrolls remain the biggest single expenditure of any NHL franchise in a given season, and those players, especially ones good enough to crack an Olympic roster, are the most valuable assets a franchise can have.
The Hockey News' Ken Campbell broke down some initial salary figures for the Olympic teams, and the numbers are staggering. The 25 players of Team Canada alone carry a collective NHL cap hit of $150.9 million this season. Team USA's combined payroll is worth some $119 million. Team Sweden sells for around $93 million.
The Penguins alone have put $33 million in payroll into the games in their seven participants. Their coaches and executives are also spending time away from Pittsburgh to concentrate on administering and coaching Team USA. This is all a considerable investment, and it's just one team.
Essentially, NHL owners are putting hundreds of millions in assets in the hands of another governing body half a world away over the next two weeks, all in the interest of a tournament that barely registers a net positive impact on their product after the games have concluded.
It's just hard to argue with that point.
These are the best players in the world, and the IOC is not paying them to participate in the Sochi Games. Not like the owners of their respective NHL franchises. Not at all.
The prevailing thought is a fair one. An injury sustained during the Olympics that keeps a player out of regular season or postseason NHL play is unfair to the team which signed the player.
The Penguins saw what happened when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both sat through the 2011 postseason with injuries. Home playoff games generate millions in local revenue, and the city of Pittsburgh and the Penguins both potentially lost out on a number of those critical games because of injuries to their star forwards.
Injuries are part of the game, but the Olympics aren't part of the NHL. Imagine the optics of Pittsburgh or any other team with Stanley Cup expectations bowing out in the first round because their best player tore his knee apart in group play against a team and nation most of their fans couldn't identify on a globe.
For NHL owners, the risk of sending their players to the tournament carries with it almost no potential reward. Are a few more jersey sales really worth a compressed schedule of highly competitive play when you're counting on the man in the jersey to carry your team to the playoffs?
The NHL may not like Olympic participation, and they don't have to tolerate it, either.
Not according to the collective bargaining agreement.
The current CBA was perhaps as rushed as it was overdue, a document meant as much to get the NHL business back underway as to ensure the league's viability for the next decade. And unlike its predecessor, this CBA makes no provision for the participation of NHL players in the Olympics.
Several players have stated publicly that they would defect from their NHL contracts to play in the Games had the NHL not sanctioned their participation. And that's the key -- the NHL had to sanction their right to play. It's not spelled out in the CBA, and won't be for the 2018 Games, either.
As quoted above, Bettman has previously said that these games were a bit of a charity to the league's players, all of whom want seem to want to remain eligible for Olympic play.
This is the executive who has presided over three work stoppages and the only full-season cancellation of a major sport in North American history. Exactly how long are Bettman and the NHL owners to whom he reports going to continue to allow Olympic participation -- anything -- because it's "the right thing to do?"
The NHL realizes there is prestige and marketing potential in an international tournament. The Olympics offer that prestige, that marketing potential, that international visibility that is the carrot on the revenue stick of every league commissioner in North American professional sports. Those things pay. But they aren't paying the NHL.
That's why the World Cup of Hockey is going to get a reboot. And the NHL is going to be at the heart of the tournament.
NHL executives have been quietly breadcrumbing the trail from Olympics to World Cup of Hockey throughout the Sochi saga. The WCOH hasn't taken place since 2004 and never generated the level of intrigue that the Olympics have, but the NHL has been on a roll lately, posting record revenues and television ratings in every season in which they choose not to hold a work stoppage. An international tournament is just the place for them to try to flex their growing marketing muscle.
Said Bettman last November,
"I'm very much a believer in the World Cup. I think they're great. Doing it at a time of year in places that we can control makes a whole lot more sense for us in terms of what we try to accomplish as the NHL. And we think it's good for international hockey as well."
They're great? There have only been two such events, the last one taking place a decade ago. But that's part of the pitch. The NHL can get behind these games because they'll be the ones behind them in the first place. They'll be in control.
And therein lies the rub -- control.
The NHL likes to think of itself as the preeminent governing body in the hockey world, and the Olympics lay in the hands of the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). It's a chance for upstart European leagues, most notably the KHL, to flex their muscle against the NHL in a direct way.
The NHL's World Cup of Hockey would wrest that control from competing interests. But would players go for such a thing?
The NHL certainly seems to be building towards the tournament the right way. The Sochi Games are an international phenomenon, politically hotwired while taking place on the home turf of one of the world's traditional hockey superpowers.
The league wasn't going to take these games from its players, its customers and its business partners, not while everyone involved is still licking their wounds from the last lockout. They'd simply have nothing to offer in its stead, and hockey fans would be left wondering why these Olympics fell off a cliff after the stellar 2010 tournament.
By laying the bricks for another international tournament now, the NHL is crafting an alternative to the Olympics. The league can announce the renewed WCOH tournament shortly after these games, quietly bury their Olympic non-participation on a Saturday evening of some other great consequence, and allow the momentum to build towards a decision that's already been made.
The benefits are easy enough to see. The league and the player's union would stand to profit from the tournament in ways they simply aren't able to do from the Olympics. They can make guarantees as to player accommodations. Games can be held at venues and at times more friendly to North American TV audiences, as well as their broadcast partner, NBC.
Most importantly, the tournament could be held during the NHL offseason, a key sticking point for owners who don't wish to see their players taking part in a tournament for two weeks at a time of year (after the Super Bowl but before March Madness and MLB Opening Day) when the NHL should be the premier sporting attraction in North America.
The Olympics are the preeminent international sporting tournament, and it would take years of successful and captivating World Cup tournaments to really replace them in the eyes of hockey fans and NHL players.
However, the World Cup is an alternative, one the NHL can provide, one they can control.
It's not a matter of whether the league will make the switch, but when they will make it, and how successful they can be in building and branding an international tournament with very local goals in mind.
Information from USA Today, CapGeek and ESPN was used in this piece. Tuesday Slew runs Tuesdays at Pensburgh. Or other days. I'm on a twitter @slew_james.