TORONTO — NHL participation in the 2018 Olympics is on the back burner until the league, Players’ Association and International Ice Hockey Federation firm up plans for the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.
After a meeting during Hockey Hall of Fame weekend in November, the sides still have some things to iron out before this is a done deal.
IIHF president Rene Fasel said one of the "open questions" had to do with the seventh and eighth teams that will take part. Beyond Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, the plan appears to be to have a European all-star team and another made up of North Americans — perhaps younger players.
"To be very honest, I like the idea," Fasel said. "That can be really very, very interesting, for the hockey fans. That could be something. We don’t know yet what we’re going to do, but personally I like it very much."
Fasel said having the No. 7 and No. 8-ranked national teams (in 2014 it was Switzerland and Slovakia) would be "deja vu" because that’s how it is at the Olympics and world championships. There were 12 teams at the Sochi Olympics: the so-called big six, and Switzerland, Slovakia, Latvia, Norway, Slovenia and Austria.
There were 16 teams at the 2014 world championships: Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, host Belarus, Latvia, Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Denmark and Kazakhstan.
The World Cup of Hockey would be an NHL production, held in Toronto in the fall of 2016. The tournament will reportedly have eight teams, but questions remain about how the seventh and eighth would be determined.
Sportsnet.ca reported in November the notion of a European all-star team from those countries not involved and a young guns team from North America. At the NHL’s board of governors meeting last month, commissioner Gary Bettman would neither confirm nor deny but encouraged reporters to wait until there’s an announcement.
"If you’re baking a pie, and you see one of the elements is something you don’t like, but you happen to like the pie, you’ve got to look at the whole mix," Bettman said. "So when we get to the point where we make an announcement people will either say this is outstanding, we love it, or they’ll say we don’t like this, we don’t like that. We’ll see."
The debate on the seventh and eighth teams pales in comparison to what discussions might be like in regard to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Bettman said last month there were "still open issues" as far as accommodations and arrangements from Sochi that are still an unknown for Pyeongchang.
The NHL, International Olympic Committee, IIHF and NHLPA have different issues and priorities. Fasel brought up the time zone in South Korea, which is 14 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in Canada and the U.S., as one problem.
That issue extends to 2022, when the Winter Olympics will be either in Almaty, Kazakhstan or Beijing. Fasel tipped the IOC’s hand Sunday.
"I think China is favoured there to win that race, so ’22 will go to China," said Fasel, who is on the IOC executive board. "So to be very honest, after five times participating in the Olympics, this one will be a bigger challenge."
There are a total of 109 registered adult male hockey players, 38 indoor and four outdoor hockey rinks in South Korea, according to the IIHF. China has a total of 118 adult male players, 58 indoor and 43 outdoor rinks.
Fasel and the IIHF are interested in growing the game. Having NHL players in those non-traditional countries couldn’t hurt.
"(NHL) players want to go to the Olympics," Fasel said. "We definitely need players there. They want to go to the Olympics."
Bettman said last month that the board of governors did not have "any meaningful discussion" about the Olympics. That’s an issue for tomorrow because the World Cup is the issue for today.
"We’re focused more from an international standpoint on getting final arrangements in place so we can announce a World Cup," Bettman said. "That’s getting our attention right now."