Last week, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said his organization needed to know by the end of April whether or not NHL players would be competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Afterwards, I reached out to the International Olympic Committee to see if its deadline was the same. Overnight Tuesday, IOC spokesman Mark Adams replied by email:
“We know that the players definitely want to play and the fans want to watch the best players in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. These Games give the greatest worldwide exposure to the sport of ice hockey. The offer for the two Olympic Winter Games 2018 and 2022 remains on the table and we are still hopeful there will be an agreement in the interests of all.
“Because of the interest of the Olympic Movement to see the NHL players in the Olympic Games, the IIHF has ensured that the travel and insurance cost of the NHL players will be fully covered, as was the case in previous Olympic Games.
“Obviously, this time the owners of the NHL clubs are putting more commercial conditions to the IOC and the Olympic Movement. The IOC has been informed the talks between the International Federation and the NHL are continuing. The IOC knows that NHL understands that the Olympic movement cannot treat the owners of a commercial franchise of a national league better than an international sports federation or other professional leagues with regard to the Olympic Games.
“Within this framework the IOC still hopes that NHL will be able to make the players’ Olympic dream come true.”
A few things stand out…
First, the IOC makes sure to tie in 2018 with 2022. The implication is not subtle — participation in Beijing is not guaranteed if the NHL avoids South Korea. Ironically, commissioner Gary Bettman is in China as you read this. The NHL and NHLPA will announce next season’s Los Angeles-Vancouver exhibition games on Thursday.
Second, the IOC again makes it clear that any money for travel or insurance costs will not come from them. That’s not a new position, but has become a critical sticking point with the NHL. The IOC paid those bills for Sochi in 2014, which was considered a major victory for the NHL.
The IIHF has committed to paying that money. At this time, that’s not an acceptable compromise to the NHL. The league would rather the international federation spend that money on development, for one thing. The other, bigger factor is that there is a large segment of the NHL and its owners who don’t feel the IOC should benefit from top-level participation “for free.” That’s the highest hurdle to leap over.
Third, there is no deadline in the statement.
We’ve done this dance before. My default position is all interested parties argue until blue in the face, then find an agreement. These Olympics provide the biggest challenge to my theory, because I do think the NHL would really like not to go.
The one remaining wild card is the wishes of China’s government. I’ve always believed the Russian government played a major financial role in getting the NHL to Sochi. If China wants the NHL in 2022, the league will be there, no matter what happens now.