SOCHI, RUSSIA - On a mountain in the morning, two Canadian men crashed on a warm and difficult day at snowboard cross and hardly anyone seemed to notice.
Gary Bettman was talking.
He was giving no hint as to whether National Hockey League players will participate in the next Winter Olympic Games.
“It’s nothing that’s been discussed,” he said, likely stretching the truth.
“It’s nothing that will be discussed,” stretching the truth even further.
Later he said they would likely have a decision about NHL participation of some kind within six months, which is probably a touch premature.
The press conference conversation Tuesday – a whole lot asked, a little answered – on the day that hockey playoffs began unofficially separates the Olympics in a way it has rarely really been separated before. And maybe for Canadians moreso than anyone else.
That was always the fear heading into Nagano in 1998. What would happen when the NHL players took centre stage? The question was there then, but never really answered. Yet in each Olympics since, as the NHL brand has grown both in North America and around the world, the hockey tournament has grown larger and more prominent – and the level of play has been superb.
In Vancouver four years ago, the success of the entire Canadian team, the excitement in the city and country, the new flag waving Canadians proved to be a wondrous introduction to the gold medal finale of the hockey tournament. But that was never an Olympics entirely about hockey. It was enhanced because of Sidney Crosby’s goal but still, there was so much else.
Just not necessarily now. These Games seem to have morphed into a playoff round of a hockey tournament with mammoth anticipation.
Outside of hockey, there is not a lot of real excitement in the streets here. There is little celebration for what has gone on, successful and expensive as these Games have been. The feel for the Games seems to occur only inside the Olympic fences. And inside those fences, the performance of the Russian hockey team will certainly determine how Russia will perceive and remember these Olympics.
And here, there is almost the feel that there is hockey and everyone else needs to step aside.
Which is either right and wrong, fair or not, depending on your perspective.
That hockey trumps all here isn’t the fault of the NHL or the hockey players. It’s partly a media determination: It’s partly understanding who wants to watch what, read what, talk about on radio.
“There is nothing in the life of an athlete like winning a gold medal,” Rene Fasel, head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said at the Olympic press conference.
And without missing a beat, Bettman chimed in with: “Except winning the Stanley Cup.”
Which seems to be an issue all its own. For the first time ever, the actual Stanley Cup is at the Olympics and the arrival of it has not been without controversy. Some athletes, mostly from the mountains, have expressed disappointment that the Cup is here. They say other athletes don’t parade around with their world championship trophies at this self-contained event. The should-the-Stanley-Cup-be-here question has been been all over Twitter, with a variety of angry responses from those who believe it’s an intrusion and those who understand the ceremony of it.
And some athletes, like figure skater Patrick Chan and speed skater Jessica Gregg were thrilled to be in the company of the Cup.
Chan looked more excited hugging the Cup than he did holding up his silver medal post-figure skating. Gregg, who was born just before her father, Randy, won his fourth Cup, got the chance to have her personal Cup moment. But others were not as thrilled.
Bettman bristled just slightly when asked about the Cup controversy here
He said it wasn’t his idea at all to bring the Cup to Sochi.
“We were asked,” said Bettman. “We were asked by the IIHF. We were asked by the COC. We were asked by USA Hockey to make it available.
“We’re extraordinarily proud of the Stanley Cup. We’re proud to share it ... I didn’t know (there was controversy).
“Like us, we’re invited guests here and the Stanley Cup was an invited guest. We didn’t say we were going to bring it and impose it on people. We were asked to make it available and that’s the only reason it’s here.”
They could have declined the invitation. They chose not to. They did not anticipate anything negative to come from the Cup being in Sochi. But there is a built-in sensitivity about the juxtaposition of the NHL players living and playing alongside those whose sports are not of similar profile. Athletes who need to wear Olympic credentials just so they can be identified. This just exacerbates that discrepancy.
This is the fifth time the NHL players have played in the Olympics and it’s the fourth straight time in which conversation centres around whether there will be participation in the next Games. And the dilemma never changes for the hockey business.
The players want to represent their countries. Much as this is a great advertisement for hockey, the NHL would rather not close down its business. The IIHF wants the best on best at the Games. The NHL would rather do this in a World Cup format, where it controls the games and more importantly the money.
There are wavering agendas here and it’s a tightrope walk for all sides.
“The reason we’re here in the first instance is because this is a game with a history and tradition of international competition and our players, our NHL players, love representing their countries. If the players ever said we’re not interested, we’re not going to ever force them to come,” said Bettman.
This trip to Russia was a challenge for the NHL and for its players. The trip to South Korea in four years time, with a 14-hour time difference, will be equally difficult. But the players aren’t likely to change their minds: They will want to play in Korea.
“This discussion, these questions, the stories that have been written, going in and coming out of every Olympics,” said Bettman. “The discussion was no different than the one we’re having now.”
These are the topics. Will they or won’t they? And if not that, it’s the Stanley Cup or who will play on Sidney Crosby’s line? Or, what’s wrong with the Russians? Or, can Daniel Sedin play without Henrik? Or, can anyone slow down Phil Kessel and Team USA? Or, will P.K. Subban ever get to play a regular shift? And if not that, it’s who wins gold in women’s hockey, Canada or the U.S?
There are no shortage of topic points. It means on a Tuesday when a Canadian short track relay team gets fortunate with a silver medal and there are two top 10 performances in biathlon, Slovenia advancing to the hockey quarterfinals represents some of the more significant news of the day.
As for the Canadians who fell at snowboard cross, their names are Kevin Hill and Chris Robanske. One went down in the semifinals, the other in the quarters.
Their Olympics are over. Their stories barely told.