Going for the Olympic Gold

Lusting After a Precious Metal, the NHL Tarnishes Itself

"Do you believe in miracles?" Al Michaels yelled from Lake Placid over national TV in 1980, and 22 years later, that phrase still recalls the single most moving event in American sports history: the U.S. hockey team's victory over the powerhouse Soviets en route to an Olympic gold medal.

Against the backdrop of Cold War politics and the early chapters of the Afghanistan tragedy, a carefully molded collection of overmatched collegians captured both top honors and the hearts of their people. This was hockey's transcendent moment, uniting the entire country—not just "hockey country"—and elevating the game to an unprecedented plateau of public awareness.

No one could figure out how to capitalize on that dewy-eyed romance, so America's love of hockey quickly faded. Paradoxically, the one body that would gain the most from a second U.S. miracle, or even a near miracle—the National Hockey League—has extinguished the amateur flame of Olympic hockey and may harm itself in the process.

When the "final round" of the 2002 Olympic hockey tourney begins in Salt Lake City Friday, the teams will be overwhelmingly stocked with professionals for the second straight time. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who orchestrated and boldly championed their participation, has again suspended his league's schedule to make it happen.

Why usurp the amateurs? Today, Bettman understates his case. "Virtually all the sports have the best players in the world participating in the Olympics," he told Canada's TSN TV earlier this month, "and I'm not sure hockey should be an exception." He has also said the league does this for its fans, who love hockey's traditional international competitions.

In fact, entering the Olympic movement in 1995 was crucial to an ambitious vision by the NHL, including expansion and now forgotten ventures like skating-rink construction and pro roller hockey, to supercharge the league's business and significantly narrow the gap between hockey and other team sports. It even included the NHL's securing many marketing rights for the U.S. team.

Bettman's ascendancy to NHL commissioner in February '93 followed his 12 years as an NBA executive, during which he witnessed and facilitated the Beatles-like hysteria accorded the '92 Olympic basketball Dream Team and the resultant boost it gave the NBA's business. Bettman reasoned that the NHL could similarly prosper from the public and media attention to the Olympics. If this larger audience could see hockey at its highest level played by NHLers representing their home countries, that could translate into the growth among nontraditional fans that hockey has always desired.

John Ziegler, Bettman's predecessor, had explored this, but was unwilling to shut down the league in February. Hockey's single largest source of income is gate receipts, and ownership would not interrupt play just as the playoff stretch drive begins, which is also the small window of time after the NFL season ends and before baseball starts. Instead, Ziegler proposed that hockey move to the Summer Games, where the basketball tournament resides out of season. However, the International Olympic Committee had no desire to siphon off a winter attraction.

Bettman's vision persuaded the owners, and they bent to the IOC, suspending the 1997-98 season for 17 days. To shoehorn the Olympic tourney into the break, Bettman, the players' union, and the IOC created a second tier of countries (this year they are Switzerland, Belarus, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, France, Austria, and Ukraine) to play a preliminary round before the NHL break, with two survivors advancing. As much as the NHL trumpets hockey's international flavor, it will not release those countries' NHLers, obviously their nations' best, for preliminary-round games that conflict with the players' league games.

If all went well for the owners, the payoff from the Olympics, expansion, and the rest would be the fat U.S. TV deal the NHL has never had. The new NBA national TV contracts, for example, will pay $4.6 billion for six years; the current NHL U.S. deal is $600 million for five years. A healthy rise in TV revenue would enhance franchise values and help offset ever escalating NHL player salaries.

In 1994, when ownership locked out the players for 105 days, the average NHL player salary was $733,000. The resulting agreement worked better for labor than management—salaries immediately leaped 21 percent. But as they rose, Bettman did something quite curious: In October '95, eager to obtain the union's consent to play in the Olympics, he abandoned the right to renegotiate the contract before its expiration. Annual double-digit salary leaps followed, and today the average exceeds $1.5 million, having doubled in eight years, spawning a baseball-like gap between rich and poor teams and provoking saber rattling in advance of a 2004 labor-management showdown. But, hey, the Olympics were on.

For the lucrative TV benefits to kick in, some big Olympic puzzle pieces had to fall into place. First, another absorbing Team U.S.A. performance was required. But hockey isn't basketball, in which the Dream Team slaughter of competition is still inevitable. Hockey talent is international and well divided. Plus, Olympic hockey is a different animal, mainly because the games are played on an ice surface measuring 200 feet by 100 feet. NHL rinks are 200 by 85, and the extra width tends to hamper North Americans, especially defensively. Conversely, European-born players grow up on that big sheet.

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