‘Strong negative sentiment’ to Olympics from NHL owners

David Amber and Nick Kypreos discuss the Board of Governors meetings and the possibility of Olympic participation from the NHL.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The NHL still has yet to decide whether it will take part in the 2018 Olympics, but the owners don’t seem keen on it.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said there was “strong negative sentiment” among owners toward players attending a sixth consecutive Olympic Games in PyeongChang. While no formal vote was taken on the first day of the board of governors meetings on Thursday afternoon, feedback leaned against another Olympic experience for the NHL, which has attended every four years since 1998.

“I think after doing five of these, I don’t know, fatigue might be a word (to describe it),” Bettman said of the owners’ reaction.

“I think our constituents have become increasingly negative toward the Olympic experience,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly added. “I think that’s fair to say.”

Bettman said owners remain concerned about the impact of shutting down the season for two-and-a-half weeks to attend the Olympics. A compressed schedule posed potentially greater risks to players with regard to injury. Then there was the all-too-obvious risk of players getting hurt while representing their countries at the Games, hurting their respective NHL teams.

It also wasn’t clear to the clubs what tangible benefit the league was getting from the Olympics.

Bettman said the NHL did get a boost when the Games took place in North America (Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010), far less so though in more distant locales, such as 1998 in Nagano.

The owners weren’t prepared to deal with those concerns and then pay for the right to attend. The IOC is refusing to cover out-of-pocket payments (insurance, travel and accommodation) for NHL players and while IIHF president Rene Fasel said recently that he would find the US$10 million (and perhaps more) required, Bettman wasn’t convinced.

“Rene said he’ll get it even if he has to steal it,” Bettman said. “I don’t know what that means. If it means taking it away form hockey development I’m not so sure that that’s a good idea.”

It was with this sour sentiment in mind that Bettman presented the NHL Players’ Association with a suggestion trading Olympic participation for an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. Bettman said the idea was based around a long-term plan of international events, beginning with another World Cup of Hockey in 2020.

“I was looking for something that might make this more appealing (to the owners), more sensible as part of some grander scale,” Bettman said.

The proposal would have provided for two Olympics (2018 and 2022), two World Cups (2020 and 2024), and two Ryder Cups (still to be determined).

“Most importantly,” Bettman said, “it tells the world and our fans there’s nine years of labour peace after this season, which we thought would be a good thing even if there were things (in the CBA) that we might want to change.”

The suggestion would have required both the NHL and PA waiving a mutual opt-out of the CBA in 2019, thereby avoiding a shutdown right after a prospective World Cup in 2020.

Bettman had yet to raise the idea with owners before it was rejected by the players last week. “If the Olympics weren’t just a one-off for PyeongChang, maybe those owners who think going to the Olympics has had its course might think better in the context of something broader,” he said.

Governors asked for comment mostly stayed neutral.

“I’ve always said that it’s nice for the players to be able to play for their country,” said Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. “But at the same time I work also for the National Hockey League and eventually all 30 owners are going to make that decision and I’ll support that.”

The league has said it would like the matter settled by early January at the latest and while there was no official timetable required to get something done, Bettman said time was running short. A schedule for the 2017-18 season needed crafting, including whether or not there would be an all-star game.

Bettman said the NHL had heard from three other leagues hoping that NHL players would attend so that their respective players won’t have to.

Beyond Olympics, the governors also discussed the cap for next season as well the state of the Las Vegas franchise. Bettman wouldn’t provide a firm number for the 2017-18 cap, but hinted at it remaining either flat at $73 million or jumping by a couple million.

The league thought a recent denial of a trademark for the Vegas Golden Knights was without merit.

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