On Monday, the NHL released a statement that its players would not be participating in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea and called the matter “officially closed.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman echoed that sentiment during an exclusive appearance on Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN, saying the NHL is “not looking to negotiate” its Olympic position.
“NHL clubs have not wanted to go to the Olympics and we have been saying that for months if not years,” said Bettman. “All we’ve done is confirmed it.”
“People talk about our interest in international. Of course we’re interested in growing international, but three weeks every four years isn’t what’s going to make it. We’re going to play games in Sweden, we’re playing games in China,” he explained. “There are lots and lots of opportunities for us to grow the game internationally and they’re not dependent on us shutting down in the middle of the season to go to the Olympics.”
The NHL is the only professional league that breaks for Olympic competition. Bettman said he even suggested that the Olympic hockey tournament be moved to the summer, but that idea didn’t gain traction with the International Olympic Committee.
“If the IOC would move the Olympic hockey tournament to the summer, that would be great,” he said. “We’d be thrilled to have our players participate because then it doesn’t affect our season.”
“NHL clubs don’t like having to shut down at a critical part of the season and disrupt our season for anything, let alone a situation where we’re not given an opportunity to promote our presence,” he said.
That idea isn’t just limited the NHL, either.
“At least two or three of the leagues in Europe over the last few months have said to us, ‘we hope you go to the Olympics,’ and I looked at them and I said, ‘why?’ and they go, ‘because if you don’t send NHL players, we have to send our players and that’s way too disruptive to our season,'” Bettman explained.
The commissioner also pointed out that while Olympic attendance has been included in past collective bargaining agreements with the players’ association, it is not part of the current CBA.
“We’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work,” Bettman said, citing the previous five Olympics games in which NHLers have competed.
“Not only has it not done anything for our game, particularly here in North America where our franchises play, it’s been damaging to the seasons in terms of the competitiveness, in terms of the compression of the seasons, and injuries to players.”
The first time NHLers competed in the Olympics was in 1998 at the Games in Nagano, Japan. Since then, playing on the Olympic stage has been widely regarded as one of hockey’s highest honours. Many NHLers have voiced their disappointment about Monday’s decision, with Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin even going so far as to say he’ll be attending the Olympics anyway.
“It’s my country,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “I think everybody wants to play there. It’s the biggest opportunity in our life to play in Olympic Games. So I don’t know.
“Somebody going to tell me I don’t go, I don’t care, I just go.”
When asked about Ovechkin’s remarks, Bettman didn’t go into details, saying that individual cases will “be dealt with appropriately at the appropriate time.”
“My expectation is that NHL players will be here playing for their teams,” he said. “We don’t have to get into that kind of debate and argument now.”
“Our expectation is our players will stay,” he said. “They owe it to our fans to make sure we have the type of season that we’re supposed to have when we drop the puck on opening night and run through to the playoffs.”