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Rossi: NHL, Olympics should divorce.

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I am not at these Winter Olympic Games. Full disclosure: I have never been at an Olympic Winter Games.

This is noteworthy only because it feels important to acknowledge that being at an Olympic Winter Games seemingly could change my mind, but I suspect not.

I hope the NHL is done with the Olympic Games.

Admittedly, this is a totally territorial view. The NHL is home to the finest hockey players, and these athletes have wanted, will want, and probably should receive the opportunity to represent their respective countries at probably the world’s most magnificent sporting event.

However, John Tavares’ season-long skate toward Elite Player status was halted by a season-ending left knee injury to at the Olympics ­– and that is not fair to New York Islanders ownership, management, coaches, players or especially their fans.

Injuries are part of hockey.

Tavares may have been injured in an NHL game.

He was not, though.

Neither was Paul Martin, who looks to be out a month – the Penguins will not know for sure until he is evaluated by team medial personnel in Pittsburgh – with an injured right hand.

Tavares and Martin are not the only players that will leave the Olympics and not return to NHL hockey clubs that are paying them.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is now on the record about no committing to sending NHL players to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games:

“There are mixed views among the owners,” Bettman said to NBC Sports.

“There are lots of quotes going in both directions. It’s a real balancing act. Coming to the Olympics is a lot of fun when we are here, and the hockey’s fun. … But it requires us to shut the season down in the middle. It’s a break in momentum. It’s at a point in time when the NFL has stopped and it’s really our time. And our teams come back in different shape. We’ve had five players who are pretty banged up already from this tournament. Some NHL teams have sent 10 players and some have sent two and some teams are going to come back more well-rested than others.”

Players, and thus union leadership, feel strongly that the NHL should be involved with future Winter Olympic Games. Any push by the NHL to make the Sochi Games the last to feature NHL players will be met with a stern labor battle.

I suspect there are a lot of hockey fans that want to see NHL players at Winter Olympic Games. To them, I offer this dose of reality: Winter Olympic Games are absolutely not about the fans.

They are about the athletes.

Also, they are about the wow-gosh advertising fees that broadcasters in many countries pay to show the Olympics.

Those big fees were being paid before the NHL first sent its players to the Winter Olympic Games in 1998.

The men’s ice hockey tournament being staged in Sochi has sparked buzz on Twitter and Watch Parties at bars. If only any of that translated to anything substantial for the NHL.

It does not, and will not.

NHL players at the Olympics do not spark ticket sales in non-traditional markets such as Florida, Nashville, Dallas or Phoenix. NHL players at the Olympics do not benefit local broadcasters, such as Root Sports Pittsburgh, for whom the Penguins are a big money maker with advertisers.

Heck, NHL players at the Olympics was not even enough to get the league’s national broadcast partner, NBC, to broadcast arguably the most anticipated hockey game in four years for a casual North American sporting audience. That thrilling USA-Canada semifinal was not broadcast live on the network that will air the Stanley Cup Final in June.

Local NBC affiliates like WPXI pay good money to carry NBC’s Olympic programming. WPXI not only could not broadcast the USA-Canada semifinal, but it, like others, could not even show highlights.

Over the last two weeks, the NHL players at the Winter Olympic Games have been not easily found on cable while NBC prime-time programming has focused on ice skating, skiing and X-Games sports.

How is any of that good for the NHL?

February, the one month the NHL basically owns in America, has mostly passed without weekend games that are important for probable sellout-revenue and big local TV numbers.

How is that good for the NHL?

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – the two signature NHL stars – have spent the past two weeks absorbing daggers to their respective professional reputations.

How is that good for the NHL?

The men’s hockey in Sochi, save for a few games involving Team USA, has mostly been a brand of plodding wall-play dominated by defensive schemes that, on the bigger international ice surface, lends itself to low-scoring snooze fests.

How is that good for the NHL?

The Winter Olympic Games are not good for the NHL.

The Winter Olympic Games are gripping and great and usually once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for participants.

Crosby has participated twice now. He will be 30 when the next Winter Olympic Games come around, and the hope here is he watches them on off-nights from Penguins games.

NHL players have gone to five Winter Olympic Games, including ones in the United States, Canada and Russia. The NHL has sent its players to Winter Olympic Games in all three zones, so to speak.

Basically, the second best NHL tournament played every four years has been covered.

The Winter Olympic Games does not feel special anymore. It feels forced. It looks unnecessary.

What seemed like a winning proposal – NHL players on the Olympics stage – has become a marriage that has run its course.

There were some good times, but an amicable split is best. The NHL, at least, needs to be on its own for a while – and that will still be true four years from now.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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Author: Rob Rossi

Rob Rossi is the lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has been called many names, but “Rossi” is the one to which he most often responds. He joined the Trib in November 2002 and was promoted to the columnist role in July 2014. Previously, he had covered the NHL’s Penguins (2006-14) and MLB’s Pirates (2006), while also working on beats associated with the NFL’s Steelers (2005-06) and the NCAA’s Pitt (2004-06). He has won national and local awards for his coverage of youth concussions and athletes’ charities. Also, he is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association executive committee and the Pittsburgh chapter chair. Raised in Crafton and Green Tree and a graduate of West Virginia University, he has covered a Super Bowl, All-Star Games in baseball and hockey, the NCAA basketball tournament and over 100 Stanley Cup playoff games, including the Cup Final twice. Oh, and his sports reporting has led him to brief chats with Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen; so that’s pretty cool. He is a regular contributor on TV with WPXI, Root Sports Pittsburgh and TSN. Also, he is the authorized biographer of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

 
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