Battle lines drawn for decision on NHL participation in 2018 Olympics

A standoff between the NHL and the International Olympic Committee continues with no end in sight, but with each passing day it increasingly threatens the league's participation in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Caught in the middle of the skirmish are players who want to represent their countries on the sport's biggest stage.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, painted a grim picture of the situation during last weekend's All-Star festivities in Los Angeles, with Daly saying "if the status quo remains, I don't expect us to be in the Olympics."

The initial sticking point was the IOC's refusal to pay travel and insurance expenses for the players. Since then, the International Ice Hockey Federation reportedly has said it had a plan to pony up the $10 million for the expenses, but the IOC's stance already had rankled NHL owners.

"There were probably some owners who always thought the Olympics were a good idea, some who always hated it and then a bunch that really didn't give it much thought until the IOC said, 'We're not going to pay the expenses,'" Bettman said.

"It caused a number of clubs to say, 'Well, wait a minute, if that's how they value our participation, why are we knocking ourselves out?' I think when the IOC said, 'You know what, we don't think it's worth it, we're not going to pay,' that may have opened a whole can of worms."

Money aside, the biggest sticking point now appears to be the owners' reluctance to interrupt the NHL season for three weeks. While it has done so for recent Olympics and survived unscathed, the feeling is the time difference in South Korea and the lack of exposure for the sport being played so far away won't justify the fact arenas across North America will be dark at a key point in the season.

"In a lot of respects it was through Gary's efforts primarily that we decided to go to our first Olympics in 1998," Daly said. "… He persuaded the board of the benefit of (going) to the Olympics (then). The league has come a long way since. The realities of Olympic participation are more apparent to our board now and it just leads to less enthusiasm about the disruption.

"Quite frankly, we don't see what the benefit is from the game's standpoint or the league's standpoint with respect to Olympic participation. So that's the challenge."

Daly said a game-changer of a proposal must come from the IOC and IIHF.

"All I can tell you is if we're going to hear the same thing I don't think it's going to move the ball," he said. "(It has to be) something that we would bring to the board that would change their current view of the situation. I don't know what that is."

On Friday, Bettman met with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, IIHF President Rene Fasel and NHLPA Director Don Fehr in New York to discuss the Games. Bach, who is in favor of NHL players participating in the Olympics, labeled the meeting as a "courtesy visit," and though no decision was made, he remained hopeful the sides "will reach a solution to make the Olympic dreams of the players come true."

Blackhawks President John McDonough attended the NHL Board of Governors meeting in L.A. and afterward said of Olympic participation, "in due time the board will vote on it … and there are a lot of facts left to be discussed."

The NHL is working on two sets of schedules for the 2017-18 season — one with a break for the Olympics and another without one — so the decision could go into overtime.

"At some point we have to issue a schedule for next year so there are practical realities but we put ourselves in position to be flexible," Daly said.

Of no doubt is the desire of the players to play in the Olympics.

"Every guy at the NHL level wants to represent their country at (the Olympic) level," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, who has won two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada. "Quite frankly, to turn on the Olympics next year and watch hockey teams or the players representing their countries, if it's not the best in the world … I just feel like we're misrepresenting our sport on a pretty huge scale. I think the NHL should be in the Olympics."

Added teammate Patrick Kane, who won silver during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver: "A lot of us would be ecstatic (to go) to the Olympics but you understand the owners' side of things too. You're taking time away from … the season for a tournament where players you're paying a lot of money could get hurt. (We'll have to) see how things play out."

There have been rumblings from some players that if an agreement isn't reached, they would defy the league and play for their countries. Toews is not one of them.

"You have a certain amount of power as a player and you can use your voice and be a part of the meetings and phone calls with the (players' association) and the league," Toews said. "Beyond that, it's kind of like officials making a call you disagree with. You just have to live with it and move on."

Associated Press contributed.

ckuc@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ChrisKuc

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