In his first year as NHL commissioner in 1993, Gary Bettman met with then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch to discuss NHL participation in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Bettman asked the 73-year-old Samaranch if hockey could be moved to the Summer Games.
“I don’t think I finished the sentence before he said no,” Bettman recalled in 2009, according to the Canadian Press. “The Winter Olympics are too dependent on hockey in terms of attention [and] ticket sales. We are from that standpoint perhaps their most important event.”
On Tuesday night, Bettman made his first public comments since the NHL’s Monday announcement that it would not accommodate sending players to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, ending a streak of five straight Olympics with blanket NHL participation starting in 1998.
Bettman intimated that he brought up the Summer Games again in recent discussions with Olympic and international officials.
“Listen, if the IOC would move the Olympic hockey tournament to the summer, that would be great. OK?” Bettman said on Sportsnet in Canada. “We’d be thrilled to have our players participate because then it doesn’t affect our season.”
Bettman was asked Tuesday if there is any chance the NHL could change it’s mind on 2018. He did not completely rule it out:
Sportsnet: It’s still believed by most that we have talked to that the door is not 100 percent closed, that the timing of your announcement leaves the opportunity for someone, whether it’s the IOC, the IIHF or the Players’ Association, to come forward with a proposal that would be more amendable to ownership.
Bettman: I don’t think that’s accurate or realistic. The fact of the matter is that we have been clear for a very long period of time that the clubs have had enough of how disruptive the Olympics are to our season, when we have to shut down for three weeks.
Sportsnet: If you hang up from us, and the phone rings and it’s [NHL Players’ Association executive director] Don Fehr on the other line, saying, ‘I’d like to sit down and discuss possible things we could to make sure our players go to the Olympics,’ will you listen?
Bettman: I would never not take a meeting with Don to hear anything he has to say on any subject. But the more important point here is, we’re not looking for a negotiation. … We left the door open, not for a negotiation, to see if anybody had a suggestion.
It was unclear from Bettman’s last answer whether “left the door open” referred to the past, before Monday’s announcement, or remains Bettman’s current view.
If the NHL follows through on not participating in PyeongChang, the most immediate issue is that of individual players wanting to leave their teams to go anyway.
Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has taken this stance, and his team owner, Ted Leonsis, has supported him. Ovechkin repeated his desire Tuesday.
Leonsis backed off a bit Tuesday, saying he had not thought about what he will do if one of his players wants to go to PyeongChang, according to Sports Business Daily.
“What the league now does with the IOC, I will wait to see what happens,” Leonsis said, according to the report. “But I’m not going to spend five seconds thinking about what happened yesterday when the playoffs are a week away.”
Bettman said those situations will “be dealt with appropriately at the appropriate time.”
“I love Alex as a person and as a player,” Bettman said. “We don’t have to deal with that now. My expectation is that NHL players will be here playing for their teams. We don’t have to get into that kind of debate and argument now. There’s plenty of time between now and the Olympics.”
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