Next February’s Winter Olympics carry the specter of potentially being the last to feature the participation of NHLers, which makes this bit of news out of Russia most interesting: Alexander Ovechkin has been named an ambassador to the 2014 Games in Sochi.
Russia won the right to host 2014 Winter Olympics back in 2007, and ever since, Ovechkin has been an outspoken and prominent diplomat for the Games. Understandably. So this formal appointment is only natural. But there have been conspicuous rumblings about the NHL wanting to opt out of having its players participate after the Games in Vancouver next February.
Why is the league so circumspect, so tight-lipped, and behind the scenes, almost certainly really down on suspending their season once every four years and releasing their players for two weeks and change? The bottom line. With elite NHL talents commonly earning long-term, highly lucrative contracts, the NHL faces extraordinary insurance premiums in insuring the stars’ participation. As in, for Ovechkin in recent international play, upwards of $500,000- $800,000! Makes sense when you think about. (The Russian Federation has picked up the premium tab in the past.) And occasionally players do get badly hurt in international competition: Jeff Halpern at the 2008 Worlds, for instance.
But from the league’s vantage there is also this fiscal consideration: When it first sent players to the Winter Olympics at the Nagano Games in ’98 it did so with the expectation that participation would deliver some manner of positive marketing benefit. After three sets of Games, it’s pretty clear that that hasn’t happened — isn’t is far more accurate to suggest that to the extent that the NHL is enjoying improved attendance and television numbers of late it has a heck of a lot more to do with Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, and other young stars and their work in the league, as opposed to the work of the league’s stars every four years in the Winter Olympics?
The Olympics participation is, however, potentially a fiscal boon for the NHLers who participate: heroism there can lead to obvious endorsement opportunities.
The Edmonton Journal well sums up the pickle the league could be in in less than five years’ time:
” . . . what’s going to happen if the NHL persists and no NHL player will be allowed to go? Certainly, the [Players Association] will file a heartfelt grievance, with much fanfare and without any measurable success. But what about the players? Some of them are under NHL contracts that already now run through the games (such as Ovechkin himself), some will be under such contracts when the time comes. This is going to be interesting.”
To the extent that he seeks to win over the NHL in allowing its players being at the 2014 Sochi Games, Ambassador Ovechkin has his work cut out for him.