This is bartering at its best: we gave you the Olympics, and now, we expect goods of same or better value in return.
Here it is: the NHL and its union, the NHLPA, are huddled in New York this week. They are preparing their joint talking points for continuing negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
The World Cup of Hockey, one of the major topics of discussion, is a given. Expect it to happen in 2016.
Except, nothing is as simple as it looks. For example: the IIHF seems to be of the view that early fall, preferably pre-season early fall (or late summer, preferably pre-season late summer) would be the best time to stage the World Cup. Yet, there happens to be a North American school of thought that would rather see the event take place midway through the season. Here’s the logic: we are interrupting our league’s proceedings in February 2014, just as the battles for the Stanley Cup playoffs begin to heat up. It costs us money (and it cost league programmers a few grey hairs, too, to compress an 82-game schedule so as not to lose a single game and still make sure playoffs begin in April). And we’ve done all that just to send our stars to somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Russia. That’s an aggravation for us more than anything, and it’s costing us money. Having the World Cup midway through the season would help us recoup those losses and then some.
The Olympic Games are the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) cash cow. That august body splits its income with international associations (such as the IIHF), and they, in turn, share it with national federations that are their backbone. The NHL is not an international association. It’s not a national federation, either. It can hardly expect Hockey Canada or USA Hockey to go insane all of a sudden and share their shares with the NHL. When the NHL sees just the broadcasting contracts the IOC has managed to impose all over the world (and never mind the tactics used to achieve that), the league must be going bonkers: all that money, and none of it comes our way! We give them our stars’ prestige, and what do we get in return? Feel free to fill in whichever four-letter word comes to mind here.
In any case, no wonder the NHL and the NHLPA would prefer to have the World Cup staged midway through the season: it might maximize their income more than considerably.
There are at least two options to be debated about how to split the World Cup income. One plan lets the NHL and NHLPA keep their (major) share and let the IIHF divide the rest, whether it be among all of its national federations or only those that sent teams to the event. The other plan would see the NHL and NHLPA keep their (major) share and split the rest among the federations that sent teams to the event, with the calculation based on how far this or that particular team had made it. This option would leave IIHF out of the equation completely, something the NHL and the NHLPA would have no issues with. The other side would not be too enthusiastic about it.
Before even beginning to debate the issue of money, the IIHF cries in response: but we’ve got a world championship in May!
Oh yeah? comes a cynical reply. How about NOT having it during the years the World Cup of Hockey is on? The existing proposals mention either every two years or, and that is more probable, every four years: two years after and two years before Olympic Games.
Here’s the rub: world championship happens to be the IIHF’s cash cow. It doesn’t have to share the loot with anybody but its national federations. Not a cent goes IOC’s way. Again: the NHL is NOT a national federation.
The NHL is not altogether pleased with this arrangement, either. It’s of the view that allowing its players to take part in the world championship helps enhance the event’s credibility. Enhanced credibility equals increased income. Yes, the players who go to take part in the world championship belong to clubs that didn’t make the playoffs or were eliminated in the first round, preferably in four games. Still, they are NHL players, and some of them are genuine stars. What’s in it for us, argue the NHL and the NHLPA, but risks? If a star player gets injured, fine, he gets money from his insurance, but what if he’s not available to his NHL team for a few months next season? Stars bring butts into arena seats. A star’s absence costs the NHL (and, by extension, the NHLPA) money. Well?
Besides, as an aside, the NHL and NHLPA are not at all satisfied with the fact that insurance coverage and sundry matters related to it differ considerably from national federation to national federation. They would like to see something that holds valid for everybody concerned.
There’s another proposal making rounds for these talks. It’s dear to the IIHF, while the NHL and the NHLPA are not so sure. Not yet, at least. It’s the idea to copy the beautiful game (association football, soccer for the uninitiated) and put together something to be known as Champions Cup. Its version on the pitch attract incredible crowds (and broadcast audiences, on television, radio and, these days, in new media). That’s a lot of money.
Why not go for it, full speed ahead? Again, there are numerous issues about competences, responsibilities and shares, and then, there’s one overwhelming fear: what if the Stanley Cup champion loses a game to, say, Lithuania? What’s the public going to say? How will it play in Peoria? as the cliché goes.
The NHL (with NHLPA’s approval, it seems) has already told the IIHF not to even bother dreaming about the league’s participation in the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea. Let’s have the World Cup, instead, the two groups say. Having the Olympic Games in South Korea does nothing to enhance the worldwide appeal of hockey, they seem to be saying, but having the World Cup in markets that cherish the game, now, that changes our views on international cooperation beyond belief.
Speaking of markets, the NHL (and the NHLPA) is not too sure that staging season-openers overseas (in Europe or in Japan) is the way to go. Financial returns have been far below overwhelming, and the players are not too happy about coming back and plunging, heads first, into the season without much time to adjust to the jet lag of at least six hours.
It’s going to be a long, complicated and difficult path before the NHL and the NHLPA reach a binding agreement with the IIHF. The interesting thing at the moment is that the league and its union are writing a joint songbook so they can sing in unison. The other interesting (and as important) thing is that neither side has mentioned it’s all about sports. There might be an occasional expression of trust that this or that helps enhance the game and spread its popularity, but it’s always quickly linked to revenues that this or that might bring in.
Well, at least they are sincere about it.