UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Looking for an endorsement of the NHL's participation in the Winter Olympics? One should not have been at Ed Snider's impromptu news conference Thursday night, after his Philadelphia Flyers beat the Avalanche at the Wells Fargo Center.
“If I had my way, we'd never go to the Olympics,” Snider, 81, told assembled reporters. “We're the only league that breaks up our season. Basketball plays in the winter, but they play Olympics in the summer. It's ridiculous. The whole thing is ridiculous. 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.”
I agree with Snider, which is something that pains me to admit, as a New England native who grew up despising the Flyers. (The sight of Kate Smith the other night on video before the Avs game, singing “God Bless America” posthumously, brought back truly traumatic memories of me as a 9-year-old boy when my Boston Bruins lost in the 1974 Finals to the Flyers. I hated the Flyers more than any team I've ever hated, and that's a long list of hate.)
Snider is right, though. It's a raw deal for the NHL, the league that pays all of these players to go off for nearly a three-week joy ride.
“Joy ride,” you say? Pretty much, I say.
Some players strenuously object to the characterization that they look at the Olympic break as mostly a paid vacation, a “Great if we win,” “Oh, well, we tried” exercise.
But that's what I believe. Players are getting paid by their NHL teams to go over to Sochi and compete for a medal in the Olympics. If they get it, great! If not? They come back to their teams with their money still guaranteed, while NHL owners take zero from the profits of the Games, and take all the risk if one of their top players gets hurt.
As Snider noted, no other major sport takes time off in its regular season to send its players to Olympic competition. The International Olympic Committee gets such a great deal out of this. The IOC gets the world's greatest hockey players to play for free, all the while making millions of dollars for the Olympics and its sponsors. The NHL, which essentially pays to develop all of these players, gets zero.
It's hard to believe this all happened under the watch of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who can wring blood from a turnip under normal circumstances. The argument for NHL Olympic participation in the financial sense hinges on the greater exposure the game gets worldwide, but that figures to be minimal in these Games. The time difference for games in Sochi means only the most hard-core fans will get up early to watch them in real time, and hard-core fans aren't the ones the NHL needs to convert.
The league benefits not at all in this respect too: How does the NHL compete with a weeknight game between the Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild when play resumes, compared with, say, Russia vs. Canada or Sweden vs. Team USA during the Games? It creates an anticlimactic lack of buzz the rest of the regular season, that's what.
But the NHL continues to go because the players union likes it. And, because in 1998, the league needed all the exposure it could get. Players continue to love it, because they get nearly three weeks paid time off and get to play for the glory of the flag.
The NHL gets a whole lot of nothing. For cutthroat businessmen like Snider, that's not a good deal.