By Stu Hackel
Finland had just taken a 3-1 lead over Russia in Sochi last Wednesday and -- having seen enough of starting goalie Semyon Varlamov -- Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov summoned Sergei Bobrovsky off the bench. Sitting in Ohio, almost 5,700 miles away, John Davidson's nervous system reacted. "Oh, my God," Davidson thought. "This is where a guy can really pull a groin muscle or rip a hamstring, which he did earlier in the year."
A former goalie himself, Davidson is now president of hockey operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Bobrovsky is his goalie, last season's Vezina Trophy winner as the best netminder in the NHL. While fans and critics of the Russian team took to Twitter and angrily denounced "Coach Bill" for not starting Bobrovsky -- who proceeded to pull off a series of breathtaking stops to keep Russia in the game -- Davidson had a different response: "He's stretching side to side there, making saves, and it was outstanding to watch him do that. But I'm having a heart attack."
Bobrovsky got through it, yet Russia was still eliminated in the quarterfinals. The goalie called "Bob" and three other Blue Jackets who skated for Russia -- forward Artem Anisimov and defenseman Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin -- would be coming back early to Columbus. "That was the silver lining for us," Davidson said a day later. "And I hate to say that. I wanted them to do really well. I felt bad for those guys. I know how much it meant to them. But we get 'em back - I think healthy. We'll know tomorrow."
Tomorrow came and Davidson learned Tyutin had joined the list of the Olympic injured with a sprained ankle, and he'll miss a couple of weeks at a crucial time with the Blue Jackets fighting for a wild card playoff spot.
Davidson's angst was similar to executives at 29 other NHL clubs, and many fans of those clubs, watching their players during the Sochi Olympics. The angst turned to anger for Islanders GM Garth Snow, whose top forward, John Tavares, wrecked his knee playing for Canada against Latvia last Wednesday.
"We lost our best player and he wasn't playing for us," Snow fumed. "Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season ticket holders now? It's a joke. They want all the benefits from NHL players in Olympics and don't want to pay when our best player gets hurt."
While less agitated, Washington Capitals GM George McPhee expressed similar concerns after perceiving his Russian star Alex Ovechkin was the target of some rough defending by Olympic opponents. "We have people that own these clubs that have a lot invested in these players and, at least monetarily, they don't get a whole lot or anything out of the Olympics," McPhee told Comcast SportsNet Washington. "I'm sure it's not fair to them, either."
"You have good players signing long term contracts with NHL clubs and then these players go away and play serious hockey games," Davidson agreed. "These are like All-Star Games that are really meaningful. They play hard. The season ticket holder who invests in watching your team play, he comes to a lot of games, and wants to see your best players. He also wants to see, I think, the best players from the other teams. And the risk of injury is hurtful. I mean, it's huge business with the amount of dollars we're talking about."
Now that it's over, the league will start asking itself whether future Olympic participation -- especially for Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018 -- is worth it.
Davidson isn't sure it is. The popular, mustachioed man known as J.D. in hockey circles joins a growing number of NHL executives who feel the same way. Over the next few months, they will look at the upside and downside of remaining in the Olympic movement. Their answer will be crucial -- not just to the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation, but also Olympic-rights-holder NBC, fans who have grown to love watching national teams compete and the NHL's own players, who want to reprise their Winter Games involvement in four years. All international hockey matters must be jointly negotiated between the players and the owners.
Arriving at a decision won't be an easy process, whichever way it goes, and the risk of injury to its better players is just one of the league's considerations.
A proud Canadian who was raised in Alberta and cheered his native land's club these last few weeks, Davidson expressed his Olympic unease with this preface: "I have a great deal of respect for what the Olympics mean. They're great, and they're fun. I've been to five of them (as a network TV analyst), so I have some knowledge of what they're about. I think the patriotism that comes from playing for your country trumps everything. It's phenomenal."
But he also wears the hat of a club executive now and has grown perplexed that in Olympic years, the Winter Games dominate hockey discourse at the expense of the NHL and the league ends up promoting a product that is not theirs.
"We talk about it for at least two months before the Olympics and we should be talking about our league," he said. "Our league is a hell of a league, the best hockey there is. You might have a gem like we had with the U.S.-Russia game. Those are fantastic. But the majority of the games, they're better right here in my opinion."
The larger international ice surface makes Olympic hockey a lower scoring, slower, far more defensively-oriented competition. The Gold Medal-winning Team Canada, which had the strongest collection of high-octane players in Sochi, realized the key to winning the big-ice game was to stress preventing goals more than scoring them. They even hired an international hockey specialist, former Swiss national and Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger, to help them develop their tactics. It worked, but the entertainment value of the tournament fell short of what the assembled talent promised.
On top of promoting a lesser brand, the NHL receives little, if any, tangible benefits from the Olympics. As McPhee pointed out, the league and clubs get no revenue from the IOC or IIHF. "Boy, oh boy, every hockey game I see, women's and men's, they have some pretty big crowds there. There's a lot of fishnagels coming in somewhere," Davidson observes, "fishnagels" being his favorite euphemism for cash.
Some estimate that the IOC's hockey revenue at Vancouver 2010 was a whopping $150 million.
And those opposed or uncertain about an Olympic future argue that while the IOC is raking in the fishnagels using NHL players, the league itself halts its schedule every fourth year during a critical time for visibility in the often crowded North American sports landscape -- the window just after the Super Bowl and before baseball's exhibition season and NCAA basketball's March Madness begin.
For Davidson's Columbus club, a relatively new franchise, there are further considerations in a business that, unlike the other major leagues, remains gate-driven. "We're building our season ticket base," he acknowledges. "We're not season ticket-driven yet, and you want to be. But we were in a groove. It was our time of year. There's no Ohio State football. It's Columbus Blue Jackets time. And we got shut down for two-and-a-half, three weeks. It doesn't help. And we were winning. We were on a good roll."
What does the NHL get out of the Olympics? For a league forever seeking greater exposure in the U.S., it's a chance to be part of the world's highest profile sporting event. TV ratings for Olympic hockey featuring the Team USA can surpass those of the NHL and players get unparalleled face time in commercials and on programs like NBC's Today show. It can make T.J. Oshie a household name.
But does this actually grow the NHL's business? Tough to say. Just prior to the Sochi Games, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly declined to link the league's economic growth over the last 20 years with sending its players to the Olympics. He called the copious data collected from four previous Olympics "mixed," maintaining there was no way to prove any connection between the two.
In 1998, the NHL hoped entering the Olympics would furnish a perfect introduction to non-fans and the sampling hockey would get them more interested in the world's top league. But when the Winter Games are not in North America and live hockey is televised at odd hours, the likelihood of that diminishes.
Even with good TV numbers, however, there remains a sense that many who watch Olympic hockey in this country don't become even casual fans of the NHL and, as one Esquire blogger admitted, may not like hockey at all. Rather, they are compelled by rooting for the home team, the drama inherent in a short tournament or just because it's a Big Event. That latter possibility caused Teresa Genaro, a thoroughbred racing writer who is also a Rangers season ticket holder, to tweet this month: "Olympic hockey:NHL hockey::Big Racing Days:everyday racing. Fans of first not going to turn into fans of second. Senseless to think so."
Both Daly and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently that the league would decide about going to Pyeongchang within six months. In Sunday's New York Times, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the league's Board of Governors, outlined the league's reservations. In addition to the risk of player injury and their potential mental and physical fatigue, he referenced the extended shutdown and how it impacts fans and corporate partners, plus "the challenges it creates for the buildings." He also noted the necessarily compressed NHL schedule.
"Anybody just want to take a look at their team's schedule in March?" asks Davidson. "Just go look. It's unreal what we have to do. Unreal." Starting Thursday, the Blue Jackets play 24 games in 45 days, and they are not the exception. The absence of sufficient rest and recovery time could mean further injury risk even with Sochi in the rearview mirror.
The overwhelming sentiment of the players to skate in Pyeongchang will complicate the league's decision. There are rumblings they will balk at participating in the proposed 2016 World Cup of Hockey, an international tournament that would financially benefit the NHL's owners, unless they can continue as Olympians. The players would share in World Cup proceeds as well, so this would not be an easy choice for them, either.
NBC's desire to have hockey's best as part of their Olympic coverage will be a factor as well. "You have to weigh the fact that NBC has been a terrific partner," said Davidson. "They've jumped in with both feet regarding the NHL, the number of games they televise and making events out of them, starting with the outdoor games. They're good people who care about hockey. So, I sit here and I waffle. It jumps at me that we shouldn't go, but we have to discuss it and think through it thoroughly to see what makes the most sense.
"Then you get towns like Warroad, Minnesota. The town's on fire," Davidson continued, leaning the other way for a moment as he admires the passion of Oshie's tiny hometown, which also produced US Women's team star Gigi Marvin and other past Olympians. Warroad was even profiled on NBC's Nightly News.
"You have to really do a study on this and make hard decisions," Davidson said. "Sometimes you can't do everything, you know? Sometimes you have to do some big things and sacrifice. Seems like we sacrifice quite a bit."
Regardless of how he feels personally or what is right for the Blue Jackets, Davidson pledges to support whatever is in the league's best interests. "But right now," he said, "that yellow legal pad that has the pros and cons, to me it seems like it's very one-sided."
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Former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club. You can follow him on Twitter @stuhackel.