WHEN BLUE JACKETS defenseman Jack Johnson (then with the Kings) returned after playing in the 2010 Vancouver Games, he finally appreciated the power and reach of the Olympics. "Whether you're a hockey fan or not, you root for your country," he says. "I had neighbors [in Los Angeles] who never watched a hockey game before and then said, 'It was so much fun watching you play in the Olympics. But what are you going to do for the next four years?' "
For a sport that has struggled to climb out of niche status in the U.S.—and two work stoppages in the last nine seasons haven't helped—the Olympics have given the NHL an international spotlight for two weeks every four years since 1998. Close to 30 million American viewers watched Canada beat the U.S. for the gold in overtime—or 72.8% more than watched Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup finals between Chicago and Boston. But even though almost every NHL player will wax poetic about representing his country and pledge that he would, if asked, play in the Olympics no matter where they are held (including Pyeong Chang, South Korea, site of the 2018 Games), there is a growing list of concerns that imperils a powerful brand extension.
Unlike in Vancouver, conveniently located in a hockey-mad nation in a North American--friendly time zone, the Sochi hockey games will start anywhere from 3 a.m. to noon EST. The players, who will arrive just a few days before their games begin, will have to adjust quickly to the time difference and play through potentially horrible jet lag.
Insuring the players remains a big concern. The total value of the NHL contracts for the 48 invitees to the U.S. Olympic orientation camp this summer was more than $750 million, which meant that insuring even a light skate was too expensive. The estimated cost of insuring players' NHL deals for Sochi will be $8 million to $10 million, which the IOC will pay. That figure will only increase.
But the NHL's biggest grievance is the lost business it suffers by shutting down for a fortnight in the middle of its season. To help recoup some of the lost revenue, the league will hold other marquee international events in the off-season such as the World Cup of Hockey. That tournament, which will include the top eight hockey-playing nations and which is reportedly scheduled for 2016, was last held in '04. Unlike the Olympics, its profits would help the league's bottom line.
After prolonged negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the IOC, the NHL agreed to let its players participate in their fifth straight Winter Olympics. But the league has not committed beyond Sochi and doesn't plan to for a while. That decision will reveal what's more important: international exposure or increasing revenue.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (OLYMPICS)
A BOON FROM ONE VIEW Almost 30 million Americans watched the gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada in 2010.