NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hasn't committed to taking a break in the winter of 2014 to accommodate the Olympics in Sochi, and the Sunday's sensational gold medal game between Canada and the United States probably won't force him into a decision either way.
But it seems clear now that if the NHL does block players from participating in the Games four years from now, it will go down as one of the most unpopular decisions in the history of sports.
Sometime in the next four years, the NHL will agree to send players to Russia. It may come after some long and tense wrangling with players during the next round of collective bargaining. It may come after a war of words between Bettman and officials from the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation. But that decision will come, and we will see Alex Ovechkin represent the host country, we will see Sidney Crosby attempt to win back-to-back golds and we will see the USA try to recapture the magic of Vancouver.
It will happen, because Bettman, despite his faults, is not insane.
Bettman claims the pause in the NHL season is disruptive, and that it's hard for the league to regain momentum. Let's concede this is the case. And let's also concede that the presence of NHL players in the Olympics boosts revenue to the International Olympic Committee, while offering no direct benefit to the NHL. Let's also concede that the IOC is incredibly arrogant to assume that a professional league would shut down to accommodate an Olympic tournament without acknowledging the role the league plays in developing and promoting the players who play in it.
And let's further concede that Bettman has a right to feel hurt that the Olympic hockey tournament is embraced with more passion than his own Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Let's concede all of that, and also concede that none of it matters. After what we saw in Vancouver, the message from the world to Commissioner Bettman is clearly this: suck it up and deal.
What's silly about the "we lose revenue" argument is that it ignores the fact that player salaries are directly tied to how much revenue the league brings in. In a capped system, players essentially earn a negotiated percentage of hockey revenue, so if revenue falls, they are hit in the wallet. And yet, players have insisted time and again that they want to play in the Olympics.
What's also clear is that the Olympics were a tremendous advertisement for the game of hockey and its top players. But perhaps Bettman doesn't care about exposure, only direct dollars. After all, this is the same man who traded the tens of millions of ESPN households for the guaranteed rights payments offered by the fledgling Versus network.
Bettman does not have to make a decision about Sochi right now. In fact, he could probably wait until the eve of the games if he really wanted to. That time elapsed will benefit him, as the buzz over Vancouver will have subsided and less emotion will be at play. But let's hope he uses the time to reflect on how exposure from an event such as the Olympics can help the NHL. In four years, he would be wise to try and leverage the Olympics for the NHL's gain, rather than take a grumpy stance that serves no one.