The NHL playing preseason games in China is a bittersweet reminder that the most international league of the four major sports and its biggest growth sector resides overseas. But it’s also a reminder that out of pettiness and greed they failed to convert on what is the best built-in marketing tool to grow the game in that sector, the Olympics.
That was a sad reality that Alex Ovechkin finally came to terms with when the Russian superstar released a statement before training camp, knowing he was going to be asked about it and knowing that he wanted to make his thoughts and feelings as clear as possible.
“The Olympics are in my blood and everybody knows how much I love my country,” he wrote, with his mother Tatyana being a two-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball. “Ever since I was a kid and all the time I have played in the NHL, NHL players have played in the Olympic Games. We never have to make choice between our team and our country my whole career. I love the Capitals and my teammates here as much as I love my country and I know all the other NHL players feel the same for their teams. We should not have to be in position to make this choice.”
And yet, there was no choice. The NHL owners made the decision that they didn’t want their contracted employees risking their health in a competition that didn’t directly make them money right now, even after the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were going to great lengths to pick up the cost of insuring all their player contracts. Of course, front offices didn’t want it either — hey, Garth Snow, how do you feel about the Olympics again? — but that’s because their jobs are on the line and they’re not paid to think about the long-term goals of the league as a whole.
The Players’ Association also failed when they couldn’t jam the Olympics into the most recent collective bargaining agreement because they thought missing half of the 2012-13 season was enough already. That concession is on the PA, because it was shortsighted to think they could negotiate that after the CBA was signed. But nothing was as shortsighted as the owners not realizing the long-term health of the league would greatly benefit from going to the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The small-minded view is that the time difference of Korea being 13 hours ahead would marginalize the viewership here, which is true. But hockey in this Olympics would hardly have been about getting North American eyes to the screens of NBC. It would have been about getting the people over there interested, inquiring about teams and players, beginning to sow the seeds of fandom.
Which is exactly what happened with these games in China, which surely is making former Islanders majority owner Charles Wang smile. For a long time he promoted the game he loved in his native country, building rinks over there and bringing youth teams over here to see the NHL product up close. Now the people in Shanghai got to see the Kings beat the Canucks, 5-2, at Mercedes-Benz Arena on Thursday, and the people of Beijing will get to see them play again on Saturday. The league thought enough of it to send two writers from NHL.com and former Rangers defenseman and current Canuck Michael Del Zotto is blogging about the trip for the league’s website.
It’s all a terrific way to grow the game in a country of 1.3 billion, including such densely populated cities like Shanghai (34 million) and Beijing (20 million). It would have worked perfectly in concert with the Olympics in South Korea. It might have gotten people more interested in China’s one professional hockey team, the Kunlun Red Star of the Russia-based KHL, which would eventually get them to turn to the NHL to see the same sport played on a higher level.
Instead, these China games now seem like a drop in the bucket, and it’s a shame.
‘I don’t know nothing about Lupes’
What a line from Maple Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock when he was asked about Joffrey Lupul failing his physical, keeping him off the ice after already missing the past year and a half and keeping his $5.25 million salary-cap hit off the books for the final season of his contract. But Lupul made it personal when he took to Instagram to say, “They cheat, everyone lets them,” before deleting the post and subsequently apologizing.
If Lupul really thought he could play and that the Leafs’ doctors were screwing him for the sake of the team, he had the right to go get an outside second opinion. He chose not to do that, showing that he knows he’s not ready to return from his assortment of injuries. Strange situation, but don’t ask Babcock about it — he still don’t know nothing.
The injuries cometh
This is why predictions about the league are so hard to make. How are the Blues going to be starting the season without Jay Bouwmeester and Zach Sanford, or the Bruins starting without Torey Krug, or the Senators without Derick Brassard and first-round pick Colin White?
A tough start could lead to a tough season, but the good news is that the league is filled with mediocre teams.
Stay tuned . . .
. . . to the Flames’ arena situation. The very popular mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, has already made it clear he doesn’t need anyone to hold his hand on issues concerning how he spends taxpayers’ money. But it’s getting more complicated now that the Flames say they were prepared to contribute $275 million to a new rink, and threats to leave the city are coming from as high as the commissioner’s office.
The Saddledome is one of the league’s remaining old barns, but it’s antiquated. They need to figure something out, and need to do it sooner rather than later.
The regular season hasn’t even started and we likely have seen the best save of the year from a player (Jon Gillies) who probably isn’t going to be on a NHL team when the season starts.