SOCHI, Russia -- While the issue of NHL players’ continued participation in Olympic hockey tournaments remains unsettled, one agreement apparently was reached by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel and NHL Players’ Assn. Executive Director Donald Fehr.
All three wore open-collar shirts without ties when they attended a news conference Tuesday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome to discuss the NHL’s involvement in future international events and the state of women’s hockey at the Olympics, among other topics.
Hey, it’s a start.
As expected, Bettman was cautious regarding the NHL’s potential return to the Olympics for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea, Fehr said he’d have to consult with his constituents and take their direction, and Fasel stopped just short of begging for the NHL to continue allowing players to represent their homelands.
“Our door is wide open,” Fasel said.
Said Bettman: “Shocking. I never would have guessed.”
Continuing their repartee, Fasel again stated his case for NHL players to participate in the Olympics. And Bettman again was the voice of caution.
“There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing,” Fasel said.
Without missing a beat, Bettman responded: “Except perhaps winning the Stanley Cup.”
None of the three would put a timetable on the discussion process, though Bettman said the sooner a decision is made, the better for the league or for national federations to choose teams if NHL players don’t participate.
Some NHL owners are known to oppose shutting down the league for two weeks during the middle of the season to accommodate their players taking part in the Games. In addition, the time difference between North America and South Korea could be a particularly difficult adjustment for NHL players competing in Pyeongchang.
“It’s about building a consensus, looking at the balance and each constituent group deciding what they think makes sense in that particular instance,” Bettman said.
“Rene would love for Don and I to say today that we’re coming, but he knows that’s not the case.”
Fasel, a member of the International Olympic Committee, said he has never had discussions about eliminating women’s hockey from the Olympic program despite the still-considerable disparity between the caliber of play in North America and in Europe. He said the quality of play was better in Sochi but acknowledged it was difficult to improve the quality when so few girls and women play the game in Europe.
He said 80,000 girls play hockey in Canada and 60,000 in the U.S., compared with perhaps 4,500 in Finland and fewer than that in Sweden. “In Switzerland and Russia if we have 2,000 girls playing that would be a lot. That makes a huge difference,” he said. “It’s much better but we are not there.”
He said he sees improvement in Russia and Switzerland and hopes to increase the entries in the women’s tournament from eight to 10 by 2022.
“We need time. Just give me a little bit more time,” he said.
All three men praised the Sochi organizers and setup, saying feedback from athletes has been positive regarding the athletes’ village -- where the hockey players are staying --the venues and the logistics of getting around. “They can walk with flip flops and shorts to come to the venues. Outstanding,” Fasel said.
Fehr, an outspoken advocate of NHL players competing in international tournaments, said he has heard no complaints from players here.
“Based on some of the press reports there were some concerns about family and security and so on,” he said. “I haven’t had anybody mention that since we got here.”
Fehr and Bettman both said discussions have proceeded on reviving the World Cup tournament, which is separate from Olympic considerations and would be held in non-Olympic years. The league and the players association would each get revenue from the World Cup or a similar tournament.
“Whatever we decide to do, I believe that in the not-too-distant future the NHL and the NHLPA will be in a position to talk about other international initiatives we’re discussing, including bringing back the World Cup,” Bettman said. “So we see international competition on the horizon. It’s just a question of what the format will be.”