NHL Deserves More Respect at Olympics

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 3) – Though it appears all but certain that NHL players will take part in the Winter Olympics for a fifth term, an official announcement has yet to be made. Time is clearly of the essence given the 2014 Games at Sochi, Russia begin in just more than nine months, and that the NHL must soon release its 2013-14 schedule. I’m told two versions are on the table: one comprised of a break from Feb. 9-25; the other without interruption.

While a couple of prime matters were raised last month by Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly – the resolution of player insurance and approval for the league to self-market the hockey tournament on its website and TV network – a third, underlying consideration may rank ahead of both.

Since the advent of NHL competition at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, league personnel have been treated as third-class citizens by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and – by extension – the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). This may seem petty and insignificant to a fan of the game, but it’s been a colossal annoyance for Gary Bettman and all other league governors. I saw the obstructive tactics and resentment first-hand at the four Winter Olympics I covered for The Fan-590. It was unwarranted; disrespectful and completely out of line.

After the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the IOC and IIHF began to consider the inclusion of “professionals” for the ’98 Japan Olympics. In the wake of the famed 1972 summit series between Canada and the Soviet Union, it was crystal-clear that Russian players were of professional caliber, and were being compensated – in one form or another – by the Communist regime. Still, the IOC and IIHF considered the players “amateurs” and forbade the top “professionals” in North America from competing.

The trend began to change during the 1977 World Hockey Championships in Vienna when Canada returned after an eight-year absence with a team full of NHL players. Bill Watters was general manager and Johnny Wilson coached the club, which included such NHL stars as Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Pierre Larouche, Wilf Paiement and Jean Pronovost. Despite the league presence, Canada finished a disappointing fourth behind gold medalist Czechoslovakia, Sweden and the Soviet Union.  

In 1995, after years of lobbying, an agreement was finally reached between the IOC, IIHF, NHL and NHL Players Association for the top performers in the world’s best league to compete in the men’s hockey tournament three years later in Nagano. The Japanese people were euphoric when Wayne Gretzky and Co. arrived in their country for the ’98 Olympics, which I had the privilege of attending. Anticipation was off the charts.

It wasn’t long, however, before Bettman, Daly and all NHL personnel (owners, general managers) began to feel slighted. Without a doubt, the inclusion of NHL pros immeasurably augmented world focus on the hockey tournament, which had long represented (and still does) the marquee event at the Winter Games. It also boosted profit margins for the IOC and IIHF. As such, NHL personnel should have been welcomed with open arms; included in all social events organized by the IOC, and provided free reign at hockey venues that were off limits to everyone but IOC and IIHF officials.

No such courtesy was granted.

Now, it’s understandable why a measure of control is needed at such big events as the Olympics and World Hockey Championships. But, the IIHF, in particular, has no flexibility. If a reporter is standing five feet to the left of where he’s supposed to be, he cannot move four feet and 11 inches to the right. During the lost NHL season of 2004-05, I covered and participated in radio broadcasts of the World tournament in Innsbruck and Vienna. At one point, at the Olympiahalle in Innsbruck, I was unknowingly out of place while waiting in the dressing room corridor to interview players. A man with no visible identification approached and brusquely commanded me to move. That being my first World tournament, I had no idea who he was, so I argued. Turns out the man was Szymon Szemberg, media director for the IIHF.

I’ve since come to know and admire Szymon, but – at the time – I was thinking, “Who is this arsehole telling me where to stand?” Finally, a media colleague (I think it was Pierre LeBrun, then writing for The Canadian Press) apprised me of the man. I quickly approached him and apologized.

GARY BETTMAN LISTENS AS RENE FASEL – IIHF PRESIDENT SINCE 1994 AND IOC MEMBER SINCE 1995 – ADDRESSES MEDIA AT THE VANCOUVER OLYMPIC GAMES.

Point is, the IIHF and IOC are quite rigid and not always respectful of others. In 1998, at Nagano, this came to include the highest level of NHL personnel and it continued through the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. For example, GM’s were forbidden to go anywhere near dressing rooms and talk to their players. When they complained to Bettman, and the Commissioner took up the matter with IOC officials, he was curtly dismissed – an egregious reply to such a principal figure. Quite properly, Bettman was enraged.

In the first intermission of the gold medal game in Vancouver, Bettman graciously agreed to join me for an interview. At one point, I brought up the subject of alienation by the IOC and IIHF. The Commissioner was appropriately diplomatic but he made it clear that such conduct would have to change, and it would undeniably be a factor in the league consenting to participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As Commissioner, Bettman was strongly and justifiably standing up for the people in his fold.

Whether the matter has been resolved – and should it be delaying an official announcement for Sochi – is not known, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Considering its stature and significance to the Winter Games, the NHL is unequivocally owed a great deal more respect by the people in charge.

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