This article, first published on February 21, 2014 during the Sochi Winter Olympics, exposes both the aim and the method of how the NHL, hand in hand with the sports media, began creating the conditions to justify launching its own private “World Cup of Hockey.”
The discourse runs like this: we poor owners have been victimized and our fans short-changed and held hostage by the Olympics, because “the best league in the world has been shut down” (Prime Time Sports, Rogers Sportsnet, February 18, 2014). “Just look at our empty buildings.” It is reminiscent of the old saw about the thief crying “stop thief!” | TONY SEED*
SEEMINGLY out of the blue, the National Hockey League (NHL) based in New York sent their fabled Stanley Cup trophy to Sochi. The media slavered when it made its appearance at Canada House on Monday, February 17th. The iconic silver trophy had seemingly fallen from the sky or appeared as if a gift from the gods of sport with a spiritual significance comparable to a burning bush.
In the media euphoria, Canadian Olympic members were organized to pose with the trophy and world champion figure skater Patrick Chan to bless it with a kiss.
Four-time Olympian skier Brian Stemmle, also a CBC analyst, denounced the maneouvre, rightly asking: “Why is the Stanley Cup at Canada House in Sochi? Other athletes don’t bring their trophies. Hate when hockey tries to overshadow other sports.”
A new diversion began.
When someone responded on Twitter, “Other sports don’t cancel a big chunk of their pro seasons to play in the Olympics. Most athletes appreciate the Stanley Cup,” Stemmle weighed in again: “Every athlete at the Olympics postponed 3 weeks of their regular World Cup circuit too – not just the NHL.”
That he was attacking the NHL itself and not attacking the sport of hockey, its athletes or its fans was made clear, although this is the diversionary impression the media portrayed over the past three days.
Another athlete confusedly tweeted that the Stanley Cup was a celebration of “Canadian culture.” That, at first glance, is not only the possible but the almost inevitable impression propagandized by the staged event. Yet it would be a gross error to think so. The NHL is a U.S.-based sports cartel and is transporting its cargo under a false flag. The last time a Canadian-based franchise won it was 20 years ago. Culture perhaps, but an annexed culture.
Nevertheless, no media answered Stemmle’s basic question: just why and how did the NHL organize the Stanley Cup to turn up at Canada House in Sochi?
A battle for capital-centred sport, against human-centred sport
Consciously or otherwise – that does not matter in this instance – the NHL has resorted to a stratagem by hoisting the flag of “Canadianism” so as the more securely to transport under this flag its contraband cargo of the “globalization of sport”, a euphemism for imperialist monopolization. Imagine the media furore if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unilaterally sent 24 oversized gold medals and held a press conference to openly display them in one of the cities with franchises competing in the finals of the Stanley Cup. Such vulgar and hooligan behaviour would be condemned.
Lo and behold, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman publicly surfaced in Sochi just two days later to proclaim his own dynastic aims.
At a Wednesday press conference, Bettman met the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel. The main topic: whether or not the NHL would continue to participate in the Winter Olympic Games.
In the words of epsn.com, the “Battle to decide the NHLers’ future at the Olympics turns quietly contentious.”
Indicating the stakes, Mr Fasel coyly declared, “I love to bargain with these people after every Olympics. It would be boring if we decided the next 10 or 20 years with the NHL. It’s so nice to be with Gary and fight in New York and have some discussions.”
A person given to parsing those comments might note that Mr Fasel said “fight” and not “negotiate.”
Mr Bettman, the parser and ex lawyer, coyly replied, “having fun, not fight.”
The seemingly innocuous Canada House event had served its purpose: to escalate a media narrative about whether or not the NHL is going to unilaterally take hockey out of the next 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea and perhaps even stage its own World Cup based in North America – and hence primed for maximum television ratings and revenues. The former possibility is being presented as a given by the powerful sports media. The latter tournament would be reserved for a tiny handful of countries with “competitive” programs selected solely by NHL bigwigs, and would take place at the end of summer before the opening of training camps.
The false narrative runs like this: the poor owners have been victimized and their fans short-changed and are being held hostage by the Olympics, because “the best league in the world has been shut down” (Prime Time Sports, February 18 on Rogers Sportsnet, co-owner of the Toronto NHL franchise). Look at our empty buildings. This blackmail is reminiscent of the old saw about the thief crying “stop thief!”
The orchestration of the media discourse aims to spread a climate of cosmopolitanism and rabid chauvinism; great nation superiority is championed in ice hockey over the “minnows”: a so-called world hockey world championship must be reserved for a tiny handful of select countries. Less is more.
At the Sochi Winter Olympics the narrative is augmented by the declaration that Canada is a world hockey superpower, that the NHL is the centre of the hockey universe, and that competition in such tournaments with inferior national teams is a waste of time to be eliminated.
The unabashed aim of the NHL is to turn international hockey into a business arm of the most powerful business interests and finance capital concentrated in NHL ownership, marketing and media monopolies – a wing of the Union of North American Monopolies.
The NHL also wants to dictate terms regarding player transfers or human resources with such other countries as Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech and Slovak republics, etc. The athletes are the products of the societies in which they have been raised, taught and trained to an elite level in sport, yet have been been increasingly seduced to emigrate to North America at a young age without any return to their communities. In 1967 when the NHL increased in membership from six to 12 teams in 1967, less than two per cent of its players were born outside of North America; with the expansion of capital (i.e., number of franchises), the percentage of foreign-born players continued to grow; from 2 per cent in 1967 to 6.3 per cent in 1979 to 17.2 per cent in 1992 to 23.9 per cent in 1999 to 33 per cent today.
The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 was followed by systematic raiding of the hockey talent of Russia and eastern Europe masked as “defections.” By 2003, approximately 46 or 17 per cent of the foreign hockey players in the NHL were athletes of Russian origin.
The contradictions between the NHL capitalists and the privileged IOC elite is a straightforward rivalry between two sports cartels of the international financial oligarchy for world market and resources/talent camouflaged with notions of superiority of nations and sports. It is a battle for supremacy of capital-centred sport, against human-centred sport, against sport sovereignty.
This is not competition in a spirit of friendship, cooperation, respect and mutual benefit. It is the complement to the Obama-Harper statecraft: to enforce might-makes-right in monopoly contention with those forces that will not so easily be pushed around, to exploit weaker countries and peoples, and to intimidate those who hesitate to open up and do business on terms dictated by North American monopolies threatening that refusal will result in spying, subversion, internal chaos, military attack and regime change.
Injuries – a red herring
Disinformation followed disinformation. NHL owners and the media mouthed apprehension at the prospect of injuries to their top stars competing on national teams in the Olympics and jeapordizing their playoff chances.
Almost fortuitously, a number of serious injuries to some leading players – two of whom have been unfortunately disabled for the rest of the NHL season – became fuel for the fire: “In light of this and other injuries suffered in Sochi, is it time for the NHL to stop sending their players to the Winter Olympics?”
NHL owners are venting their spleen at the Olympics, though none speak out with the same conscience against the atavistic nature of NHL competition with its ceaseless fighting and traumatic concussions. One would think that the media would ask the NHL governors why there has not been a single fight between competing hockey players during the Olympic competition. According to the self-serving logic of the NHL governors, the NHL should have suspended competition due to the crippling injuries suffered during regular season play by such leading players as Steven Stamkos of Canada; centres Henrik Sedin and Henrik Zetterburg, together with Johan Frazen of Sweden; and forwards Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula of Finland.
This vulgar controversy with all its “news” from the injury front is simply bargaining in “bad faith,” a well-known tactic of capital to all workers. A TSN online reader put it well: “The NHL does NOT send players to the Olympics. Players who are subject to a NHL contract choose to go and to play for nothing. That is not a small distinction – it is the ESSENCE of the issue.” Either the NHL shuts down for a two-week period every four years or over-rides the Collective Bargaining Agreement; either individual NHL owners order players under contract to them not to go, or risk that they will go regardless. The possibilities of injuries in such a rough sport, known to both sides, is a red herring.
This provocation and “debate” are staged to exert pressures on the players to adopt concessions to the NHL-NHLPA contract, secured after the cartel locked out the players, with the well-known themes of the public allegedly being held hostage by “millionaire players.”
The NHL had quitting the Winter Olympics on the agenda until the outstanding Russian player, Alexander Ovechkin, threatened a player walkout – regardless of their contracts – in order to participate, if the owners did not shut down the league. Further, the players then overwhelmingly voted for participation in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The NHL cartel accepted it as the price to pay for the billions they were now taking back out of player salaries that they had previously agreed to in the CBA.
Now the cartel is trying to exert more concessions with the assistance of the lackey, inter-locked sports media. This shows that the real fear of the owners is not injuries, but that the NHLPA will decide to go anyway, an initiative that will be overwhelmingly supported by most fans. A TSN poll entered by 2939 readers concurred: 68.4 per cent declared that “the Olympics are too important” to be missed.
John Tavares is a case in point. His season was ended with a devastating injury to his knee and New York Islanders’ general manager Garth Snow bombastically demanded a refund for season ticket holders from the IOC. Nevertheless, Mr Tavares declared on February 26, “I certainly love playing for my country, and if I got the call again, I would.”
The model for the NHL plan: World Baseball Classic
Although the NHL is perceived as a poor cousin to professional baseball, basketball and football in the US market, it is regarded by analysts as being in the forefront of “globalizing its brand,” primarily in the early 2000s. Media partnerships (all with American corporations) and sponsorships, especially with regard to online platforms and real-time statistical data, boosted its worldwide exposure and revenues, “largely in part to the quality and quantity of the foreign professional and amateur hockey players who had played the sport” who brought their skill, strength, mobility and speed to the NHL (Frank P. Joza, Sports Capitalism: The Foreign Business of American Professional Leagues, p. 149).
The NHL’s fan base and customers are “ranked first among all professional sports leagues in the use of online, software, broadband access, personal computer ownership, and buying power on the Internet.” Regular season games, playoffs and Stanley Cup competition is broadcast by satellite to Rights holders in Europe (including Russia), and selected countries in Asia and Oceania – 160 nations in all. The marketing of merchandise has soared to well over one billion dollars annually.
The greed of the rich sports corporations that control hockey for maximum profit is fuelled by the success of the coup d’état of U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB). When the sport of baseball (along with softball and later wrestling) was kicked out of the Summer Olympics – beginning with the 2012 London Games – in a secret vote of the IOC on July 7, 2005 over the resistance of U.S. owners to send their best players and agree to drug protocol testing, MLB immediately pulled out of the drawer its plans for a World Baseball Classic (WBC). The IOC vote played into its hands to subordinate world baseball to its self-serving interests; MLB had been attempting to create such a tournament for at least two years.
The MLB staged its first WBC in the USA early in 2006 as a joint venture with the Major League Players Association, who received a portion of the crumbs. In this way, it would control the venues on “home soil” and own the merchandising. It tilted the field of competition by dictating special rules for the competition that favoured the U.S. professionals and appointed the umpires to officiate these rules. In violation of sport sovereignty, MLB even selected coaches and delegated American players with appropriate national origins to pad out teams at the bottom of the pools such as Italy (staffed by Italian Americans) and Israel (staffed by Jewish Americans). The 16 participating countries were chosen by invitation, not through a qualifying process based on performance. The participation of Cuba, despite the fact that it was world champion, was initially blocked until the Bush administration was forced to back down. To date, Cuban Baseball has not been paid the royalties owed to it on account of its participation and showing; it finished second to Japan in the inaugural tournament, while the American major league professionals were eliminated in the round robin qualifying round.
MLB has now created a virtual monopoly over world baseball which, apart from Cuba and some other countries, is at its beck and call. The WBC is now sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). By 2011, the IBAF was forced to abandon the Baseball World Cup. On September 8, 2013, the International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate wrestling and to add golf and rugby sevens, defeating a combined baseball-softball bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics to be held in Japan, where baseball is a major sport.
But the IIHF is not the IBAF, nor is it dealing from a soft hand. The recruitment of foreign-born athletes by the USA and Canada – which, in hockey, now descends to the midget level – is a major concern, together with the control of the market. Although the IIHF has no jurisdictional control over the internal operations of the national governing sports organizations, it may be quite prepared to see the NHL walk, and continue with hockey in the Winter Olympics – regardless of the NHL.
Commercialization of sport and athletes
Crass commercialism plays a major role in fuelling the media frenzy over hockey. According to information published in the Toronto Star, an estimated 5.6 million Canadians watched the U.S. and Canadian women play a qualifying match.
“Put in context, last fall’s Grey Cup game between Saskatchewan and Hamilton averaged 4.5 million viewers. The Winter Classic between the Leafs and Red Wings averaged 3.5 million with a peak of 5.3 million. The big shootout game between the American and Russian men meanwhile hit the scales at 4.1 million viewers.”
That number was far surpassed for the gold-medal game:
“It was more of the same Thursday for the women’s hockey gold-medal game — a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory for Canada over the U.S. (our neighbours to the south are probably more than tired of that storyline by now). Nearly 13 million Canadians watched at least part of that contest, with a reach of 3.1 million online. The share for that one: 63 per cent.”
The NHL, the IOC and the international financial oligarchy which own the multinational corporate sponsors of the Olympic Games and the TV rights holders can only drool over the figures and revenues for the men’s competition.
The thrilling U.S.-Russia men’s hockey game that saw the Americans emerge with a 3-2 shootout win at the Sochi Winter Games was the most-watched hockey game in history for the US cable network NBCSN, the sports affiliate of US Olympic broadcaster NBC. The network averaged 4.1 million viewers during the game, which aired in the morning in the United States. It hit a peak of 6.4 million viewers when the game went into an eight-round shootout that became the most-watched half-hour of television in network history, NBCSN said in a statement. NBCSN’s previous viewership record for a hockey game came during Game 3 of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, a duel that drew an average audience of 4 million.
As reported today on canada.com:
“CBC’s telecast of Friday’s men’s hockey semifinal between Canada and the United States drew an audience of more than 15 million, which is just under half the Canadian population. Of that total, some 3.8 million watched a live online stream, the highest yet for a live event on CBC.
“The telecast pulled in a whopping 74 per cent share of the English television market in Canada. The average audience of 10 million is around 2.5 times what CBC normally draws in that time slot (typically, most people are working at that time. Olympic hockey, apparently, is reason to slack off for a few hours).”
Economic drive for world domination
Commercialization is only part of the story. The line of chauvinism and athletic superiority is the ideological reflection of the economic drive for world domination of U.S. imperialism. The call to arms to withdraw from the Winter Olympics was issued just before the Olympic break by NHL governor Ed Snyder of the Philadelphia Flyers. This franchise is owned by the powerful Comcast broadcasting monopoly, the largest mass media and communications company in the world by revenue. It co-owns NHL Network, has a minority stake in MLB Network, and owns NBCUniversal which holds US broadcast rights for the Olympic Games through to 2032.
In Canada, TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, in particular, have a direct monetary stake in its outcome. Both have ownership stakes in NHL franchises (Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment; Montreal Canadians). In November, 2013 Rogers Communications shut out the rival TSN and the CBC by purchasing exclusive Canadian NHL TV rights for $5.2 billion in an unprecedented 12-year contract. (Rogers has since purchased the naming rights for the new Edmonton Oilers’ arena as well as BC Place.) The Thompson family, which owns the Globe & Mail, has a stake in the Winnipeg Jets. CBC is not only the rights holder for the Olympics but the longtime rights holder for the NHL and is rumoured to be involved with Rogers in a side deal.
For human-centred sport
According to this worldview, Canadians have no say in deciding the direction of sport in the society; they are merely to be exploited as spectators and consumers of the narcosis of professional sport and especially American and annexed sport controlled by U.S. and Canadian oligarchs using slogans such as “We the North” and “Canada’s team”. To equate this to the national interest clearly reveals that the people are rendered powerless by the current state of affairs. Canadians can never accept such things as Canada’s integration into the U.S. imperialists’ sport empire with, among others, the assignment to disrupt and monopolize international sport. Private monopoly cartels such as “N”HL and MLB should be banned from owning international sports tournaments between nations. The actions of the NHL and media highlight the necessity for Canadians to stand for human-centred sport as part of the democratic renewal of society, a sport motivated by the highest ideals of amateur sport. A basic principle is participation in sport and recreation should be a right, not a privilege based on moneyed interests. Any self-respecting nation should have its own national sports leagues. This is a nation-building project by the working class and people of our country to be taken up for solution.
*Tony Seed is co-author with Curtis Coward of The Kids’ Baseball Book (Halifax: New Media Publications, 1994) and a former coach, sports executive and publisher of amateur sport periodicals in Nova Scotia.
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