NEW YORK, N.Y. – Two days of talks between the NHL and international hockey officials wrapped up Friday with signs that the league will wind up sending its players to the 2014 Sochi Games.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel met for about 2 1/2 hours after a 90-minute get-together Thursday night. No new talks were scheduled, but the sides are expected to meet again.
NHL players have participated in the past four Winter Games, and the league is weighing whether it gets enough return on its overall investment, which requires North American hockey to shut down its season for over two weeks to take part.
“I think it is fair to say that if this can be worked out to everybody’s satisfaction, we’d all like to have NHL players at the Olympics,” Bettman said. “To go through chronicling issue by issue isn’t going to serve anybody’s purpose and probably isn’t all that interesting.
“I think, most importantly, hockey fans that like and love the Olympics would like to see us get this done, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on. … Ultimately, the IOC, the NHL players and the board of governors are going to have to approve what we get done, but we’re working on it.”
Players’ association executive director Don Fehr joined the discussions by phone from Toronto. The union and the NHL appear aligned in their position on the Olympics now that their labour dispute is behind them.
IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and league chief operating officer John Collins also took part in the talks Friday. Daly said the sides intend to touch base again next week.
“There are many issues that are of common interest,” Bettman said. “I believe we have been supportive of issues the players’ association has raised, and the players’ association has been supportive of issues that we have raised. The IIHF has been supportive to the IOC on issues that both the players’ association and the league have raised.”
No decision on whether NHL players would head to Russia next February was expected this week, but one will have to be made soon.
“We put ourselves on a timetable,” Bettman said. “We each have some work to do internally before we get back together, but we’re going to get back together again and stay in communication.”
It is believed hockey federations will need to know by May what players will be available for their teams. The NHL would like an even quicker resolution.
“I think timing is more of an issue from our standpoint,” Bettman said. “We have to do the schedule for next season. I don’t want to prognosticate. We’re all trying to get to the same place.”
While the NHL and the players are interested in participating in the Olympics again, the league is just coming off a long shutdown caused by the lockout that produced a shortened regular season this year.
“For sure we have to know as early as possible,” said Fasel, an IOC member. “As Gary said, we do not have a deadline, but what we know is next week we’re going to start to work (with) a lot of people to prepare as soon as possible an agreement.
“It is not easy, but that makes it very interesting.”
The time difference will force the games to be played at off hours in North America, and the NHL would like to receive concessions from the IOC that haven’t been made before.
In return for sending its players to the Sochi Olympics, the NHL is trying to acquire video, photograph and website rights for the games. The IIHF and the IOC retain those exclusive rights now.
The NHL began sending its players to the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, and continued through the 2010 Vancouver Games. Even though the NHL received great exposure by having its players take part in an Olympics in North America, disrupting the season does come with a cost.
The stopping of the season, the potential injury risk to players, and no tangible upside for the NHL are all factors that create doubt about whether the investment is good for the league.
“I hope they vote yes,” said New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, a U.S. Olympian in 2006. “It’s as simple as that. It’s great for the sport.”