The NHL remains reluctant to reverse course and compete at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing despite new assurances from Olympic officials to lift various major stumbling blocks, which also have the backing of the league’s players.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly significantly tamped down hopes of the world’s best players returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2014 by referring to recent talks as being “very preliminary” and leaving open many unanswered questions.
“We aren’t there yet. In fact, we aren’t even close to being there,” Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Monday. “At this point in time, we continue to believe that the negatives outweigh the positives.”
At the same time, Daly raised another concern by suggesting the issue of Olympic participation might be resolved easier if it were tied to ongoing negotiations to extend the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players. The two sides are scheduled to spent the next two days in CBA talks in Toronto.
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr responded by telling The AP he hoped the NHL wasn’t moving the goal posts on the union in regards to the issue of Olympic participation, with the Beijing Games taking place before the current CBA expires.
“I can’t figure out why anybody would not want to go and take advantage of this opportunity because it doesn’t come around every day,” Fehr told The AP by phone.
“We think and have always thought that a matter like this should be addressed on its own merits, and it seems to us that the merits on this one are crystal clear, pellucidly clear,” he added.
The setback in discussions comes a week after NHL and NHLPA officials attended a meeting in New York where the International Ice Hockey Federation provided mostly verbal – but few written – assurances addressing many concerns that prompted the league to decline to participate at the Winter Games in South Korea. The NHL had participated in the previous five Olympics.
Among the long-standing issues IIHF chief Rene’ Fasel addressed included paying for players’ travel and insurance costs. Another issue was providing the league and union access to video and still images to allow both to market its players.
Daly called the meeting “positive,” but said the league continues to have “valid reservations” over how Olympic participation disrupts its schedule by having to shut down the regular season for two weeks once every four years.
Messages left with Fasel and the IIHF was not immediately returned.
Fehr was encouraged following the meeting.
“The impression I had coming out of the meeting was that there ought to be a way to get this done to everybody’s satisfaction,” Fehr said.
Fehr doubted the Olympics issue would be raised during talks this week, by saying, “the NHL needs some time to go through and digest and think through what happened at the last meeting, as we do.”
Though there’s no firm deadline yet set on the NHL sending players in 2022, Fehr hoped an agreement is reached well before Fasel’s term as IIHF chief expires in September.
Differences over Olympic participation have the potential of derailing talks after both sides showed good faith in September, when they ensured three more seasons of labor peace by not using an opt-out clause. Such a move would have terminated the existing CBA this September.
Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf wasn’t surprised when informed how the NHL might attempt to fold Olympic participation into labor talks given how a large majority of players favor representing their respective countries.
“Why do you think that is?” Getzlaf told The AP with a laugh. “They’re a business. If they put that into negotiations, that means it’s a leverage chip for them that they’re going to try to use against us.”
New York Islanders NHLPA representative Anders Lee said the chance to compete in Beijing should be as important to the NHL as it is to the players.
“There’s a lot of things that go into this, and there’s a reason why China: It’s a draw,” Lee said. “It’s a great thing for our game. That’s why it’s so important to both sides.”
Fehr noted the two sides have enough issues that need to be settled in negotiations without having to introduce competing at Beijing into the mix. He did note, however, a desire to establish a long-term international calendar of events that would include Olympic participation and the revival of the league- and union-sponsored World Cup of Hockey, which was last played in 2016.
“We can only hope that as these discussions continue, whatever the initial reactions are will give way to the facts and circumstances," he said. “My view, and this is a personal view, if you take advantage of the opportunities when they come.”
Daly responded by saying Fehr is entitled to his point of view regarding the value of NHL Olympic participation.
“But so are our owners,” Daly said. “We participated in five consecutive Olympic Games, beginning long before Don was involved in our league. We have a pretty good sense of the positives and negatives associated with participation.”