TORONTO — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr offered competing visions on the likelihood that NHL players will attend the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.
Speaking ahead of the NHL Centennial Classic on Sunday afternoon, Bettman kept pushing a now-familiar narrative that NHL owners were reluctant to return for a sixth consecutive Olympics. Fehr, on the other hand, said he was "more optimistic now than I ever have been" that players would ultimately go.
Fehr said he was confident that a deal would be reached with the IIHF and IOC which would allow for that possibility.
Bettman, conversely, said there was nothing new to report from early December when the NHL’s board of governors met in Palm Beach, Fla., and voiced "strong negative sentiment" to the Olympics, citing the challenges of a season shutdown, the lack of tangible benefit to the league and the IOC’s resistance to covering out-of-pocket payments for players to attend.
He said there had been no further discussions with the IOC or IIHF "and absent some compelling reason I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of sentiment on the part of the clubs to go through the disruption of taking three almost weeks off during the season."
"We’ve been there, done that five times and while Vancouver and Salt Lake City were different," Bettman said, referring to their value to the league, "when you’re halfway around the world it’s not the easiest thing to have in our season."
Bettman said it wasn’t just the risk of injury at the Olympics, but the effects a compressed NHL schedule has on the league and its players. Even the newly added break for NHL clubs during the regular season is causing concerns among players, Bettman said, because it further tightens the schedule.
Fehr was in attendance when Bettman made his remarks and then offered a more hopeful stance, one that served to paint the league as the partner holding up the process.
Asked why he was so optimistic Fehr said: "You get a sense of things as they go along. You get a sense of things and how they’re likely to end up. Doesn’t mean you’re always right, but you get a sense of things."
Given the time constraints of getting a deal done, Fehr didn’t think it was likely that the current collective bargaining agreement would be extended as part of a deal to get players to the Olympics. The players’ association recently rejected a proposal from the league which would have seen the CBA extended while confirming NHL participation in a wide-ranging schedule of international events, including the upcoming Olympics.
Fehr did suggest that the players’ association might be open to agreeing to such a plan outside of the current CBA, one that would include the Olympics, World Cup of Hockey and Ryder Cup-style events.
"The optimum would be something that swept in a wide-range of international events over a period spanning several years and that would include the Olympics," Fehr said. "But if the optimum is not attainable or not attainable at once then you go for the short-term and I don’t have a judgment yet as to which I think it’s likely to be if either."
Otherwise, a deal that would include only the 2018 Olympics is possible.
The NHL recently began working on two separate schedules for the 2017-18 season, one that would include the Olympics and one that wouldn’t. Bettman had previously suggested the need for a deal by January, softening some on that urgency on Sunday.
"We’re not the ones who are setting the deadline on the clock," he said.