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NHL players eye Olympic march

NHL players have never marched in the opening ceremonies of an Olympic Games, but the NHL Players’ Association is pushing the NHL to change that next year in Vancouver.

Inspired by the images of NBA players Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki marching into the Bird’s Nest at the Beijing Olympics, the NHLPA has proposed to the league that at least some of the biggest stars in the NHL walk with their home countries in Vancouver, believing the players’ participation will increase the awareness of the NHL brand worldwide.

“Yao Ming walking into the stadium in Beijing is equivalent to Sidney Crosby walking into the GM Place in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics,” said NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly.

The NBA received major exposure when
players such as Yao Ming joined
Olympic ceremonies.

NHL players have not historically participated in the opening ceremonies because NHL games have been played the first weekend of the Olympics. But Kelly visited the league offices three weeks ago and proposed that the 2009-10 schedule be drawn up so that 20 or so of the NHL’s most recognizable players can participate in the opening ceremonies in Vancouver on Friday, Feb. 12, 2010. He presented the same proposal to general managers last week during their meetings in Naples, Fla.

“Ideally, we would like to arrange the schedule and I would love for them to break the schedule Thursday night the 11th and all fly to Vancouver, so they could all participate,” Kelly said of the 175 NHL players expected to compete in the 2010 Olympics. “But that is a nonstarter with the league.”

Kelly added that the NHL would lose significant revenue if it were to give up that weekend’s worth of games.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league is not opposed to allowing players to participate in the opening ceremonies, but said it would be subject to scheduling and each club’s “individual judgment as to whether they can accommodate a player’s absence.”

“We are already committing two weeks of our season to the Olympics,” Daly said. “We don’t intend to commit any more.”

At the very least, Kelly wants a change in the schedule so that NHL teams with the biggest stars, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals with Alexander Ovechkin, could play games in the northwest part of the U.S. late in the week before the opening ceremonies. That would enable those players to fly into Vancouver on Thursday night and walk in the opening ceremonies.

Having NHL players walk in the opening ceremonies would offer considerable broadcast exposure to the league and its stars. NBC’s coverage of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony in Turin, Italy, attracted 50 million total viewers, while the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City drew more than 72 million viewers. By comparison, the biggest audience for an NHL game during the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals on NBC was 6.7 million people.

“We are trying to get more exposure,” Kelly said. “We are trying to expand the reach of our game. There is no better place than the Winter Olympics, especially when these Olympics are being held in Canada.”

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