PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 25: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal against Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators during the second period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

NBC and the NHL have always had a great partnership. For NBC and more specifically NBCSN, the NHL gives the network a tentpole property that can provide valuable hours of programming from one of the big four North American professional sports leagues. For the NHL, NBC can provide the depth and consistency in coverage that they could never get from the likes of ESPN while they focus so much attention on the NFL and NBA.

The NHL-NBC marriage goes back over a decade now and while it’s been good for both sides, there might be some strain in the relationship right now. And it all has to deal with the NHL’s polarizing decision to skip the Winter Olympics in 2018 and not send their players over to Korea.

It’s an unfortunate decision for Olympic fans and hockey fans who want to see the world’s best represent their countries while playing for a gold medal. It also puts NBC in an interesting position of having to choose between two of their biggest partners. And they have made their choice loud and clear.

Via the New York Post comes the news that NBC has scheduled no NHL games to be televised during the Olympics and the peacock’s attention will fully be on what’s happening in Pyeongchang:

The NHL is refusing to send its athletes to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, because the league does not want to go dark for nearly three mid-winter weeks. But you know that by now.

What you probably are not aware of, however, is the NHL nevertheless will go dark across all NBC platforms between Feb. 7-26, during the Games. Last season, NBC and NBCSN combined to telecast 20 NHL games over the comparable period.

This is a network decision that several industry sources in touch with Slap Shots over the past two weeks interpret as nothing less than the league’s U.S. national television rights-holder giving a symbolic middle finger to Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors for withholding its players from one of NBC’s most important properties.

If the entire point of the NHL skipping the Olympics is so that they don’t have to take a lengthy mid-season break… but there are no nationally televised games… doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having an uninterrupted season and not playing second fiddle to the Olympics?

Is this the proverbial “middle finger” to the NHL as the Post intimates? It definitely could be a not-so-subtle message from the league’s television partner that they aren’t happy about the NHL devaluing one of the major attractions of the Winter Olympics and hurting NBC’s product. Let’s face it, more people are probably going to be interested in the Olympic curling tournament than the hockey tournament next winter. It would be interesting to know what language exists exactly in the NHL-NBC contract because a major league going dark on its cable partner for nearly a month is fairly unprecedented. Perhaps NBC is under no obligation to air games given the NHL pulled out of the Olympics.

So then, maybe this is just business. After all, NBC pays a whole lot more money to the Olympics than the NHL. The latest contract for the Olympic rights is $7.75 billion over six games while the NHL deal is a mere $2 billion over ten years. Additionally, the Olympics will draw bigger ratings for NBC and NBCSN than the NHL could ever dream of doing. Four years ago figure skating and ski jumping set viewership records for NBCSN at the time during the last Winter Games.

Therefore, given the pure numbers, it’s understandable that given the choice between their two biggest partners, NBC and NBCSN would choose to focus on the Olympics over the NHL.

But wouldn’t you think NBC could air at least one game during those three weeks? Maybe even two? Given the 13 hour time difference on the opposite side of the world, you’re looking at primetime being filled with tape delay action all over the place. The fact that NBC won’t even air a single live NHL game during primetime up against the Olympics is less than encouraging for the league. And in a way, maybe it is a message from NBC that the league’s decision to skip the Olympics has more consequences than they originally imagined. Perhaps it’s a message to anyone else who partners with NBC that dissing the Olympics is probably the worst thing they could do.

[New York Post]