By Bucky Gleason
NEWS SPORTS COLUMNIST
Ed Snider is like many absurdly wealthy people whose views become distorted by money. The Comcast Spectacor chairman and Flyers owner is 81 years old. Over the years, he has been prone to saying silly things and making strange decisions that make you wonder whether he has any grasp of reality.
So it was refreshing last week to learn that Snider, when he was asked about NHL players participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, hasn’t lost his wits about hockey matters unrelated to goaltenders. Rather than sing the company line like many league executives, Snider took his position and became a voice of reason. “If I had my way, we’d never go to the Olympics,” Snider said. “I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off, or however long it is, in the middle of the season. It screws up everything. How can anybody be happy breaking up their season? No other league does it. Why should we?”
Four years ago, when the Winter Games were in Vancouver, it made perfect sense for the NHL to participate. Nontraditional hockey fans climbed aboard in the preliminary rounds. You could sense a groundswell of patriotism across North America as the gold-medal game approached between the United States and Canada.
And it was a great game.
The International Olympic Committee pointed toward the tournament as proof that the Winter Games should include the best players in the world. It was hailed as a terrific international event, making for a tough argument for even its biggest detractors. Unfortunately, a few simple facts were lost in the euphoria that followed.
It was a rare time in which everything lined up. The Olympics were held in a great hockey city in a great hockey country with a great hockey team. The biggest games were aired on prime-time television in the U.S. and Canada. Players weren’t forced to overcome extensive travel to reach Vancouver.
All told, it worked.
The 2014 Winter Games weren’t set up for a repeat performance. The crowds will be loud and proud, but it’s not as if Sochi is some hockey hotbed. NBC’s prime-time coverage will be on tape delay. The nine-hour time difference is certain to have an adverse effect on the product, much the way it did in Italy eight years ago.
“There is no benefit to us whatsoever,” Snider said. “I can only see negatives.”
The NHL condensed its schedule to allow for the Olympic break. The Sabres are so bad that you wouldn’t recognize the difference, but there will be residual effects across the league when the season resumes. Whether players are rusty from not playing or stars are fried from overplaying, the NHL game will be compromised to some degree.
Past success doesn’t always matter. The 1998 Nagano Games were a terrific introduction, but it worked mostly because it was the first. Four years later, when they were held in Salt Lake City, the travel and time change weren’t factors. Hockey during the 2006 Turin Games was an utter waste of time.
When you add up the travel, the time difference, the audience, the risk of injury and the interruption, it’s simply not worthwhile for the NHL to play an overseas tournament.
The league had little choice with Sochi. It was thrown into a no-win situation after Alex Ovechkin made it clear he was participating with or without permission. It would have been embarrassing if his countrymen followed him to Russia without the NHL’s approval. Europeans supported him. So did U.S. and Canadian players.
We’ll see how it shakes out, but don’t be surprised if the NHL is sent over the edge over the next two weeks in Sochi and the following two months in the league. Already, there are rumblings that this will be the last time NHL players will be allowed to play in the Olympics when they’re held abroad.
Europeans have had a major influence on the NHL, but they don’t make the rules. By last count, there were 215 Euros who suited up for at least one NHL game this season. There were 473 Canadians and 218 Americans. Canada and the United States were the only Olympic teams made up entirely of NHL players.
In fact, it’s one reason I’m picking Finland for the gold. It’s just a hunch, but the Finns have a core of NHL players who will be supplemented by a group that’s familiar with one another. The time difference for the others, including seven playing in the KHL, will be two hours or less.
The IOC already is pleading with the NHL to stay involved, but it doesn’t make sense when the Games are held outside of North America. It makes more sense to hold the World Junior Championships at the Olympics. At least it would include amateurs, for which the Olympics were initially designed.
Let’s be honest, the NHL isn’t worried about a flood of South Korean players abandoning their teams for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. The site of the 2022 Olympics hasn’t been announced, but they will not be staged in North America. For Snider, it wouldn’t matter if they were held in his own backyard.
“I hate them,” Snider said. “The whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t care if it was in Philadelphia. I wouldn’t want to break up the league.”