The NHL has not decided whether to let its players participate in the Olympics beyond this year, casting doubt on who will be competing for hockey gold in four years.
With the league set to push pause on its season for next month’s Sochi Olympics, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly also is allowing for the possibility of a security issue that could keep the players from travelling to Russia at all.
"As of now, we do not doubt that all necessary steps are being taken by the Sochi Organizing Committee, the Russian government and the IOC to ensure the safety of the athletes and guests in Sochi," Daly wrote Monday in an email to The Associated Press. "Obviously, if something significant were to transpire between now and February 9 that causes us to question that conclusion, we will re-evaluate. I don’t expect that that will become necessary."
Russian security has been looking for three potential female suicide bombers, one of whom is believed to be in Sochi. The country has assembled what is believed to be the biggest security operation ever for an Olympics with more than 50,000 police and soldiers.
"The NHLPA continues to be in contact with Olympic and security officials regarding plans for the Olympic Games in Sochi, and will work closely with all concerned to monitor matters in advance of and during the Games," NHL Players’ Association spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon wrote in an email.
Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson has competed in each of the last four Olympics with players from the league and is looking forward to a fifth and probably final time next month. The 41-year-old Detroit Red Wings forward said it would be "bad" for the NHL to take the unique experience away from its players in the future.
"It’s an unbelievable experience," Alfredsson said.
The NHL and the players’ association will decide on future Olympic participation after Sochi, just as they have done since the top players started participating in the games in 1998.
League officials just aren’t sure freezing their league for two-plus weeks in the middle of the season is good for business — especially when the Olympics are not in the U.S. or Canada.
"The North American experiences have been better than far-away Olympics for a host reasons, including exposure," Daly said in a recent interview with the AP. "When you have a North American-based Olympics, you can have a shorter period without NHL games. We’re going to have the longest break we’ve ever had, and that could interrupt momentum for teams and have an effect on their competitiveness based on how many players they have playing, and how many injuries they have in Sochi."
The NHL had 150 of its players — at least one for each of the 12 countries in the tournament — picked to play.
The league will not have any games from Feb. 9 through Feb. 24, a 16-day window that is between major American sporting events: the Super Bowl and the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. Instead of directly benefiting from the decreased competition for time and money from casual fans, the league can only hope that allowing its players to be in the Olympics draws more people to the game.
"There are potential negative impacts with participating midseason in the Olympics and that factors into the overall analysis of whether it’s a good idea for us to go or not," Daly said.
When the Sidney Crosby-led Canadians beat the Americans for gold four years ago in Vancouver, nearly 35 million people watched on TV.
"It’s pretty obvious to say it’s good for the game," Chicago Blackhawks and U.S. forward Patrick Kane said.
But even if there’s a rematch in the gold-medal game on Feb. 23, the audience likely will be much smaller because the puck is scheduled to drop at 4 p.m. in Sochi and at 7 a.m. or earlier in North America.
Would the NHL let its players compete in the Winter Olympics only when they’re held in North America?
"I don’t think that’s where we would go, but I wouldn’t rule it out," Daly said.
Players, seemingly universally, want to play in the Winter Olympics for the sixth straight time in 2018 in South Korea — and beyond.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association have been in talks about bringing back the World Cup of Hockey that wouldn’t conflict with the league’s regular season. Daly said the NHL and NHLPA are both in favour of creating a uniform international calendar.
"A World Cup should clearly play a part in that," Daly said.
NHL players, meanwhile, don’t want a World Cup of Hockey — perhaps every two years — to replace an opportunity to play in the Olympics.
"The World Cup would be cool, but the Olympics are something else," said Swedish and Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who was picked to play for his country in a second straight Olympics. "It’s all the best athletes in all the sports in one place, trying to get gold. To take the best hockey players out of the Olympics would be wrong and would be a shame."