After much deliberation, the National Hockey League on Friday announced that it will be sending its players to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Per the terms of a joint decision between the NHL and its Players’ Association, the league will suspend all games between Feb. 9 through Feb. 26 to accommodate the mass exodus of players suiting up for their home countries.
“The National Hockey League features the most international player population in professional sports, and our outstanding athletes take tremendous pride in representing their homelands on the global stage,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “The decision to participate in the Sochi [Games] was in many ways a difficult one, but one that we know will be well received by our players and, most importantly, by the vast majority of our fans and sports fans everywhere.”
Bettman in June said that the negotiations with the International Olympic Committee were in part complicated by Sochi’s remote locale. The snow-free town lies on the coast of the Black Sea, just north of the Georgia border.
By all accounts, the transportation and insurance issues that bogged down the negotiations have been addressed. (In May, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said it would cost as much as $3 billion to insure all 120+ participating players.)
That said, it remains to be seen if the IOC will grant the NHL greater access to highlights and images captured during the Winter Games. (The draconian rules governing the use of such content prohibit the NHL from displaying Sidney Crosby’s gold-clinching goal in Vancouver on NHL Network or NHL.com.)
A dozen nations will compete for the gold in Sochi. They are Russia, Slovenia, Slovakia and the United States (Group A); Austria, Canada, Finland and Norway (Group B); and the Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland and Sweden (Group C).
The NHL began sending players to the Winter Games in 1998 when Bettman decided that the exposure of the Olympics would prove to be an effective promotional tool for the league. The Czech team defeated Russia in the final, 1-0.
Four years later, Canada neutralized Team USA’s home ice advantage with a decisive 5-2 win in the Salt Lake City gold medal game. Sweden beat Finland in Torino (2006), while Canada once again got the better of the U.S. four years later, winning a 3-2 nail-biter in overtime in the friendly confines of Vancouver’s Canada Hockey Place, aka Rogers Arena.
Tournament play is set to begin Feb. 12. NBC will air the gold medal game on Feb. 25.
Canada’s 3-2 victory over the U.S. in 2010 delivered 27.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched hockey game since Team USA beat Finland to take the gold in the 1980 Games. Coming on the heels of the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal that saw the U.S. upset the USSR 4-3, the gold medal clincher drew 32.8 million viewers.