Wednesday, February 21, 2024

NHL on right track with players back in Olympics

TORONTO — So the league that should have set the template for international competition and having a global presence is back in the best-on-best business and that is news worthy of celebration.

For while the Stanley Cup reigns supreme, the dirty secret is that Bobby Orr flying through the air on that Boston afternoon in May 1970 is a mere footnote attached to a list of hockey’s greatest moments that were forged on the world stage.

There’s never been anything as dramatic as the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR in which Paul Henderson grabbed on to the brass ring of immortality. Unless we are talking about the “They’re Going Home!” game at the Spectrum between the Flyers and the Red Army in January of ’76. Or maybe the 1980 Miracle On Ice Olympics in Lake Placid.

How about the 1996 World Cup best-of-three final round in which Team USA took out Canada in the final minutes of the decisive match in Montreal to win its lone best-on-best title on Brett Hull’s disputed goal that Glen Sather still refuses to recognize? Of course there are the 2010 Games in Vancouver that featured Sidney Crosby’s overtime Golden Goal.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conferencing announcing the league’s players will be participating in the 2026 and 2030 Olympics. NHLI via Getty Images

It has been frustrating for the hockey universe and a major issue among the players that hockey hasn’t been able to stage a best-on-best since the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. There were issues with the IIHF and the IOC. There were issues among myopic owners who could not see the value in sending their players to the Olympics. There were issues and posturing revolving around collective bargaining.

Finally, though, the league is going back to the future it established more than five decades ago. There’s an ironclad agreement for the NHL to send players to the 2026 Games in Milan and the 2030 Games, during which the hockey tournament will be played in Nice, that was announced here Friday during All-Star festivities.

I’ll tell you what, though, there was a tableau during the press conference featuring Bettman, PA executive director Marty Walsh and IIHF president Luc Tardif where it became stunningly obvious why there have been so many obstacles forging this pact.

For only moments after Bettman announced that all of the major economic issues, including insurance for the players had been taken care of, Tardif indicated otherwise about 2030. To suggest that the commissioner gave the IIHF president side-eye is the understatement of All-Star weekend.

Bettman glanced at his fellow executive with bemused or stunned disbelief, began fidgeting in his seat as he waited for the microphone and then rebutted Tardif immediately.

“Let me just add one thing, particularly for the NHL owners that are listening,” he said. “The fact of the matter is our agreement is that we are not responsible for any of the major costs and how the IIHF raises the funds … that is their issue, not ours.”

The Games will represent the highlight of the international calendar that will also feature international midseason tournaments on the even off-years between Olympics. So, 2026, the Olympics; 2028, a World Cup-style event; 2030, the Olympics; 2032, a tournament.

Gary Bettman (center) and NHLPA Executive Director Marty Walsh (left) react as IIHF president Luc Tardif during an All-Star weekend press conference. NHLI via Getty Images

And next winter, the NHL will stage a Four Nations Tournament that will include Team USA, Team Canada, Team Sweden and Team Finland in an event that likely will be played in Boston and Montreal.

It is not best-on-best. Not yet. You may have noticed that Russia is not included. That means Artemi Panarin, Nikita Kucherov, Igor Shesterkin, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Kirill Kaprizov, Ilya Sorokin won’t be at the party. Neither will Leon Draisaitl of Germany or David Pastrnak of Czechia.

But the exclusion of Russia-Russia-Russia is, of course, the most noteworthy aspect of the tournament composition even though its team failed to medal in the last three Olympic Games in which NHL players competed.

Russia will not be in the Four Nations tournament next year, meaning Artemi Panarin won’t be able to play in the event. AP

“I think we’ve been pretty open about the fact we don’t condone or support the aggression in Ukraine,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said when asked about the thought process to led to the decision. “And really as a result of that — but we support our Russian players and we certainly don’t hold what is going on geopolitically against the individual Russian players — but we thought the totality and the circumstances with the IOC and IIHF that it probably wasn’t the right time to include the Russians as a team.”

Russia and Belarus are banned by the IIHF and the IOC from competition. The IIHF decision will be revisited this spring. But regardless of whether the league’s decision is fair, fans here won’t care about that at all when the U.S. plays Canada. Of course the NHL benefits from expanding the footprint to Europe, but a best-of-five between the U.S. and Canada might have sufficed.

Best-of-five men’s, best-of-three women’s and the NHL could cut the schedule to 72 games and no one would notice — and everyone indeed would benefit — if revenue generated by this kind of super event could make up for the shortfall of those missing five home games per team.

Look, you can quibble with next year’s format and you can wonder why the league was so late to the game. But the NHL is back on the right track. Next year, we get Auston Matthews, Jack Hughes and Adam Fox against Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar.

That’s a pretty good start.

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