Can NHL afford to skip Sochi Games?

With the focus of hockey fans worldwide on the current men’s Olympic tournament in Vancouver, the possibility of NHL players participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia remains uncertain.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel discussed the issue last Thursday during a joint press conference in Vancouver. Fasel all but begged for NHL participation in future Winter Olympics, but Bettman remained non-committal, saying that decision will have to wait for the next round of collective bargaining between the league and the NHL Players Association.

That could prove a contentious issue between the league and its players. It appears most NHL team owners aren’t keen about future Olympic participation, claiming the NHL hasn’t seen the profitable return it expected since allowing their best players to perform in the Winter Olympics nor has that participation improved the league’s visibility in the all-important American sports market.

The players see it differently. While acknowledging the weariness of playing through a somewhat compressed schedule during an Olympic year, most believe it worthwhile for the opportunity for their best to represent their respective countries at the highest level of international competition.

Bettman and company would want its brand more conspicuously tied in with the Olympic brand, allowing The NHL Network far greater access to its players before and after games, and increased prime time television coverage on whichever American network carries the 2014 Winter Games.

The league could also attempt to use the Olympics to gain concessions from the NHLPA in the next round of collective bargaining. For example, Bettman and his negotiators could agree to participate in the Sochi Games and perhaps those in 2018 (host city currently unknown), provided the players agree to eliminate no-movement and/or no-trade clauses in their contracts.

While money could ultimately prove the determining factor in future NHL participation, it could face potentially damaging or embarrassing consequences should it decide against participating in the Sochi Games.

The Russians have had cool relations with the NHL for nearly a decade, stemming back to their legitimate complaints over unfair player transfer payments in which Russian teams received a pittance for allowing their best players to break contracts and jump to the NHL.

This led to the rise of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and its efforts to challenge the NHL’s supremacy by attempting to sign away some of the latter’s best players, especially Russian players.

Of late, relations between the two sides has thawed and the sides have an agreement not to poach contracted players from one another.

But any possibility of improved relations between the two leagues could be thrown into serious jeopardy if the NHL decides against participating in the Sochi games.

That could have the unfortunate result of stemming what’s been a declining trickle of Russian players into the NHL down to almost nothing, robbing North American hockey fans of the opportunity to watch some of Russia’s best talent performing on the NHL stage.

The NHL’s refusal to participate in Sochi won’t, however, prevent the best Russian NHL players from returning home to represent their country on home soil in 2014.

Washington Capitals’ superstar Alexander Ovechkin has already publicly said he would play for Russia in those Games even if the NHL weren’t participating, expressing no concern over the consequences for his actions from the league front office.

Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis has voiced support for his captain, telling The Hockey News last December if Ovechkin insisted on going to Sochi even if the league forbade it, he’d probably fly the superstar there himself.

Ovechkin isn’t the only Russian superstar who feels this way. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin said he’d join his countryman in Sochi even at the risk of heavy fines or a lengthy suspension.

If two of the NHL’s biggest, most marketable superstars were to thumb their noses at the league and suit up for their home country in the Sochi games, it would not only be a huge embarrassment for the NHL but could also prompt other big-name stars from other countries to do the same.

Imagine the NHL continuing its 2013-14 season through the period of the Sochi Winter Games without Ovechkin, Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Nicklas Backstrom, Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane, Mikko Koivu, Zdeno Chara, Ryan Miller and Henrik Lundqvist. That’s not to say all those players will follow Ovechkin and Malkin’s lead but the possibility exists.

Not even league threats of fines and suspensions could prevent a mutiny of some of their elite players, which could have a devastating effect upon the rosters of their respective NHL teams, potentially becoming a rallying point for a currently rudderless PA, and an ugly public relations nightmare for the league. That might be all it takes to guarantee NHL participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics.