The four top stakeholders in the discussion over whether NHL players will participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea next year met without resolution Friday, with one warning that time is running short to make a decision.
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, for the first time joined International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association Executive Director Don Fehr at a meeting in New York. With league owners reluctant to put next season on hiatus for nearly three weeks against the wishes of their own players, it’s clear that hurdles remain with 12 months to go.
Fasel said the group may need to get back together soon and set a deadline.
“I have a coordination commission in March in Korea,” Fasel told reporters at NHL offices in New York. “We need to know about the accommodation. We need to know about the transportation. The sooner we know, the better we can prepare the conditions for the NHL players and the NHL.”
Bettman and NHL team owners appear willing to skip the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 and possibly resume Olympic participation in China four years later, assuming the IOC would allow that to happen. They don’t want to shut their season down without tangible benefits, and the 14-hour time difference and relatively small market in South Korea are not enticing.
“The focus from the clubs’ standpoint is what does this disruption to our season mean?” Bettman said. “Clubs are very concerned about the competitiveness of our season, the health and wellbeing of our players, whether or not there’s fatigue. From our standpoint, I think the clubs are very much focused on disruption to the NHL season.”
Players, it seems universally, want to participate in a sixth straight Olympics.
“There’s a shared interest in developing our game with international play,” Fehr said in a telephone interview. “We have a difference of opinion with the owners about where the Olympics fit in, particularly in South Korea.”
Fehr said Bach’s presence was a positive sign.
“It was good that he came and showed interest,” Fehr told The Associated Press. “We had a frank discussion without any agreements.”
While the IOC got involved in the talks, Bach made it clear the other three parties will have to come up with an agreement.
“We all want see the best players at the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018, and we know the players feel the same,” Bach said. “Therefore, we hope even more that the international federation and the NHL will reach a solution to make the Olympic dreams of the players come true.”
The IIHF has come up with the money needed to cover travel and insurance costs for players, Fasel said, suggesting other issues are more important.
The Olympics has become part of the NHL labor situation. The league recently asked if the union would eliminate its opt-out option in 2019 and extend the labor pact three years through the 2024-2025 season in exchange for participating in the 2018 Olympics. The union refused.
More than 400 miles away from the meeting, John Tavares was paying attention in Detroit as he and the rest of the New York Islanders prepared for a game against the Red Wings. Tavares, a union representative, said the topic seems to be a bargaining chip between the league and players.
“It can be used as a sensitive issue,” he said. “You can make the argument on the negative impact it can make during the regular season, but then globally, the positive impact it can make. There’s a lot of talk about China and preseason games and the growth there when the Olympics go there. We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of moving parts.”
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said the Olympics is a unique event and is eager to return to a third Games.
“This is an event, huge in the whole world. I don’t see why we have to give something up now. I think just play for your country in a big event all over the world,” he said.