Olympic Meeting Takeaways: NHL, NHLPA, IIHF leave with work to do

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joins Prime Time Sports to talk about sending NHL players to the Olympics.

NEW YORK – The most telling measure of where things stand with the NHL’s Olympic negotiations came shortly after a three-plus hour meeting wrapped up here on Wednesday afternoon.

“Lots of work still to do.”

That word was passed along from inside a boardroom that featured almost as many voices as competing interests in this process. You could sense the delicate nature of talks when deputy commissioner Bill Daly, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel came out together to speak with a small group of reporters afterwards.

“Nobody said it would be easy,” said Fasel.

It’s important to remember the history here. Fasel figured the NHL was going to bail in the lead-up to the 2006 Torino Olympics and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. A deal to take them to the 2014 Games in Sochi wasn’t finalized until June 2013 – roughly eight months before the opening ceremony.

The league has staged best-on-best tournaments at the last five Olympics and established a January deadline for a decision on Pyeonchang 2018.

There is still time.

Each of the key players in this negotiation has been part of the process before. They will confer with their constituents before another meeting is scheduled, but the task should be a little clearer after Wednesday’s gathering at the NHL head office.

“It’s not a big progress, but we will get there,” said Fasel.

With that in mind, here is a look at where the work needs to be done by each of the primary stakeholders if a deal is going to be reached:

It’s still not clear what exactly this financial arrangement will look like.

By now we know that the NHL and NHLPA have no interest in covering any of the travel, insurance or accommodation costs associated with the event. That bill totalled roughly US$14-million in Sochi.

However, the league has also taken issue with Fasel’s plan to raise the funds through an amalgam of the IOC and the various national federations and Olympics committees involved. The NHL doesn’t want a scenario where a country’s grassroots program loses money because the IOC doesn’t want to pay as much as it did in the past.

“That was one of the issues,” Fasel acknowledged Wednesday.

He is left with a delicate line to walk here.

The IIHF president is also an IOC executive board member and knows that IOC president Thomas Bach is no big fan of hockey. Fasel has been dealing exclusively with the Olympic committee and needs to get them to chip in more money to satisfy the NHL.

He will also circle back with the national federations to see what else can be done.

Fasel’s role is highly political in nature and he stands to lose the most if the NHL pulls out of the Olympics.

“I have a lot to do,” he said. “It’s even more than I expected but I will do it.”

As much as Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman drive this process for the NHL, it is the owners who hold the hammer.

That’s why the Olympic issue will be an important agenda item at the Board of Governors meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 8-9.

We have often heard that owners don’t like shuttering the season for a 17-day Olympic break while giving up their most important assets – the players – for nothing tangible in return. It certainly doesn’t help that the Olympics are a tightly controlled entity which place strict limits on the ways the NHL can leverage its participation in the Games.

“I know there’s some grumpiness (among owners),” Bettman reiterated this week.

As a result, the league is anxious to get more out of its Olympic experience – especially for a Games held in South Korea that carries limited outside marketing opportunities. That was at the heart of a deal offered to the NHLPA earlier this month, which would see the collective bargaining agreement extended by three years in exchange for signing off on Pyeonchang.

Not only would that arrangement offer labour piece until at least 2023, it would map a way forward with the international calendar – setting up another World Cup in 2020 and a trip to the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

If the NHL elects to skip the 2018 Olympics, the owners will likely end up shouldering most of the blame. At this point, it appears that they need to be given something in return for going back.

NHL Players’ Association
The offer of an extended CBA isn’t viewed as something the players are willing to give up for continued Olympic participation. They see value in being able to renegotiate a labour deal as soon as 2020, especially with so many currently up in arms while giving more than 15 per cent of their salary back in escrow.

Even still, Fehr will go through the process of informing his executive board about the pros and cons of the deal on the table. They will eventually have to formulate a response.

It’s no secret that players love being part of the Olympics. At one point, there was a discussion about holding the hockey tournament in Seoul – a two-hour train ride from Pyeonchang – but the players didn’t want to be separated from the Games themselves even if it would have come with more convenience.

What Fehr must determine is at what cost? Is it in the NHLPA’s interest to offer up any sort of concession to go?

There is also talk about some players going whether there’s officially a deal in place or not. Alex Ovechkin, for example, has said that’s his intention.

However, that’s not territory the union is prepared to wade into at this point.

“When and if the NHL makes the decision one way or another I’ll react to it,” said Fehr. “I’m not going to speculate about it.”

While not directly part of the negotiations, per se, it was notable that Hockey Canada president Tom Renney and USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean had a front-row seat for Wednesday’s meeting.

Those men – and a couple of their European counterparts – may be required to come up with some money from their organizations to help subsidize the Olympic venture, depending on how Fasel’s financial plan comes together.

They also need to be ready to pivot quickly if things fall apart.

That’s why Hockey Canada hired Sean Burke to scout European-based Canadian pros this season and assemble the team for the Deutschland Cup earlier this month. They’ll be putting together a very different-looking Team Canada for Pyeonchang if the NHL isn’t involved.

Another gold medal will be expected either way, according to Renney, but he joked this week that the likelihood of a third straight Olympic victory hinges on some factors beyond Hockey Canada’s control.

“Depends if it’s Plan A or Plan B,” he said.

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