A year from now, presuming the NHL gets what it wants out of the IIHF and the IOC, the league will be about to resume their 2013-14 season following what should be an exciting 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The Olympics end on Feb. 23, and the Gold Medal Game in men's hockey is the closing event at the Games. TSN and CBC have already done roster speculation, as have we at SB Nation for both the Canadian and American squads, and NBC won't be far behind.
(Just to get it out of the way, because this is a U.S.-focused story, CBC will be back as Canada's main Olympic network, with Sportsnet and TSN along for the ride. One wonders, should Canada make the Gold Medal Game, if Bob Cole will be given one last hurrah as the voice of the sport in the nation that cares about it the most.)
Even though the main American broadcaster of the Games has stayed the same -- NBC laid down $4.38 billion to keep the Olympics logo on top of the Peacock through 2020 -- their portfolio, and the way they broadcast the sport of hockey in particular, has evolved during it's time as the broadcast home of the NHL.
In 2006, Team USA's games were placed on the USA Network (appropriately enough), with the rest of the tournament bouncing around between CNBC and MSNBC. MSNBC was the consistent home for hockey during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, with a Russia vs. Czech Republic game as well as the Gold Medal Game between the United States and Canada drawing big ratings on NBC.
Now, NBC owns what used to be VERSUS, and is now the NBC Sports Network, and I believe a small piece of the NHL Network, making national hockey broadcasting in the U.S. and NBC almost synonymous. They have a full staff in place for hockey beyond just a lead team and a studio show. You know the likely people who will be involved. The only real question is where everything fits in.
While NBC has promised to air every Team USA game live on television during the tournament, they have not made that promise (i.e. this article that claims "nearly all") for the rest of the field. Make no mistake, the entire Olympics will air live online and on mobile apps -- it'll look something like this past summer's attempts -- but as far as on the traditional broadcast medium, no promises have been made.
Part of me wonders if not promising the entire hockey tournament -- which would likely feature games taking place no later than 8 a.m. ET -- is NBC playing coy, waiting for the NHL to commit to the games. There's no way a network with such an investment in hockey would mess around with a tournament featuring the best competition in the world by tape delaying games. They stand to gain nothing and would lose a ton of respect from hockey fans. I personally would be shocked if this happened, and think they're just hedging their bets in case, somehow, the NHL doesn't allow players to go to Sochi.
Let's face it, though: NBC is the home of the Olympics. NBC is the home of the NHL, for a pretty, $2 billion penny. The NHL is probably going to Sochi.
Gary Bettman does have a point regarding the NHL's push back, though: the league deserves compensation for their participation. I don't think they necessarily deserve a substantial cut of the profits, but I totally agree with the sentiment that the league should have more TV leeway with the tournament.
How can that happen? NHL Network needs to be involved with the Olympics, somehow. Whether they're allowed to have a broadcast perch from somewhere in Sochi, or maybe given a live game or two (featuring two lower-profile teams, of course), or at the very least allowed to show some damn highlights, or even game replays. Can you imagine how much the NHL Network would rerun Olympic hockey, especially if the United States has success in 2014? I mean, they still show games from the 1996 World Cup every now and then!
Let's break this down, network by network.
I really don't expect much out of the main network of NBC during the Sochi tournament, and that's okay. This isn't like Vancouver, where a live game will be available to them in their typical Sunday at Noon ET hockey slot. They have the option of showing the occasional live game in the dead of night, or risking their audience on mid-afternoon hockey repeats.
I doubt much more than highlights will be visible on NBC. The Gold Medal Game, as it has been every Olympics since they came to NBC, will likely be on the network somehow. They managed to show the 2006 Gold Medal Game at 8 a.m. ET from Turin, Italy, so they'll figure that out. But I wouldn't bet on much more. Maybe more Al Michaels and Pierre McGuire sitdowns akin to the water polo tournament in London, but that's it.
NBC Sports Network
In that article linked above, it's reported that NBCSN is slated to be the home of U.S. team sports during the game, but come on. The only other team sport at the Olympics is curling, and that usually gets it's successful, cult show three hour slot on CNBC every day.
NBC Sports Network should be the home of hockey at this Olympics. It can be done, too: NBCSN managed to be a capable home for basketball and soccer (for both men's and women's, too) during the London Games. I also imagine the women's Gold Medal Game will end up on NBCSN, since that tournament ends a few days earlier than the men's.
Seriously, let's get NHL Network involved somehow. Whether it's a nightly highlight show on site or from their studios in Toronto, or NHL Live from Sochi ... we saw what NHL Network was like during the lockout, and that seems unacceptable for two weeks during the Olympics.
There needs to be some form of Olympic programming on NHL Network. It'd be a huge mistake not to figure out a way to use them.
I'm sure MSNBC or CNBC will get a hockey game here or there, but there's one other option that NBC utilized during the Summer Games: an added digital channel that essentially serves as a live feed for the entire hockey tournament.
NBC added networks for Olympic soccer and basketball from London, which would at times simulcast, but at other times be the only network to find various games. This option will most certainly be available online, though based on the London games, we might be stuck with the home broadcasts. What's Russian for "BIG DRIVE!"?
I was pretty ambivalent about the NHL going to the Sochi games, but I'm starting to get a bit more revved up for it. I don't know if it's getting closer to the event, or Austria and Slovenia (i.e. Thomas Vanek and Anze Kopitar!) qualifying and shaking things up a little, or whatever, but I'm ready to go.
I hope Gary Bettman and the league find a way to make a deal with Rene Fasel and the IIHF, and I really hope the NHL gets what it wants out of it. I know it sounds a little too "Gary-friendly" to say that, but if the league gets what they want, hockey fans will have more avenues with which to view the most exciting part of the entire Winter Olympics.