The National Hockey League is reportedly mulling keeping its players home for the Winter Olympics. Should the NHL decide not to send players to Sochi, the International Olympic Committee could find itself in the midst of a logistical and public-relations nightmare.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly expressed confidence that big leaguers would be able to compete, he wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press, showing surprising faith in the security measures being taken by the local organizing committee. The league plans to send the players to Sochi unless "something significant" happens between now and Feb. 9.
The IOC and NHL engaged in tough negotiations before arriving at an agreement that would suspend the regular season for two weeks in exchange for the international body covering players' insurance costs. Each of the 12 teams competing in men's ice hockey in Sochi boasts a significant league presence; some teams consist entirely of NHL players. So while the IOC already has a problem on its hands with convincing fans to brave the threat of terrorism at the Olympics, it could also be faced with the prospect of not having enough athletes participating in the games' marquee event.
The absence of NHL players would also further highlight just how poor a decision the IOC made when it chose Sochi to host the games. Flash back to 2007, when the committee selected the Russian city by just four votes in a secret ballot that had many scratching their heads over questions of the country's ability to get the infrastructure and security in place for such a major event -- not to mention the whole "worst human-rights record since the Soviet era" thing. The IOC has done a masterful job of deflecting blame to the host nation for the problems that have plagued these Olympics, but let's not forget that the committee chose Sochi over the much more stable and accessible Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The IOC could ultimately be the cause of what it considers an absolute travesty: not having the best athletes in the world representing their countries. The absence of Major League Baseball players from the Summer Games was a primary reason the IOC voted to purge baseball and softball. Wouldn't it be something if that happened with the competition's most high-profile (and highest-revenue-generating) sport -- and it would be completely the IOC's fault?
That said, the NHL isn't exactly innocent in this entire affair. Delaying the decision until a relatively arbitrary date on whether to keep players home absolves it of being forced to definitively declare that the Olympics aren't safe and further shortens the amount of time the league would have to deal with scheduling and other logistical concerns -- which only results in further pressure to send players to Sochi as the competition approaches. The IOC created the whole mess, but the "will they or won't they" game the NHL is playing only makes the tough decisions even harder.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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