International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) president René Fasel has said he is holding out hope that a deal could yet be struck for participation of stars from North American league the NHL at the 2018 winter Olympic Games, but added that any agreement must be reached by mid-July at the latest.
Speaking to German newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger ahead of the start of the 2017 IIHF World Championship, which is being co-hosted by Cologne, Fasel admitted that a deal would be “very difficult” but said he had not given up on an agreement.
The NHL last month confirmed it would not participate in the 2018 Games, stating no “meaningful dialogue” had materialised to convince it of the benefits of disrupting its season so its stars can compete in Pyeongchang.
The NHL’s decision seemingly ends a run of five consecutive winter Games with the league’s players and follows months of back and forth between the organisation, the IIHF and International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC had earlier claimed that the IIHF had agreed to pay the travel and insurance costs of NHL players for the 2018 Games in a bid to ensure their participation at next year’s event in Pyeongchang.
The IOC has covered these costs for the past five editions of the Games, but has refused to do so for Korea’s Olympics, leading to the standoff between the NHL, IIHF and IOC. However, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said the IIHF had stepped up with the hope that a contribution that could run as high as $20m (€18.3m) may help persuade the NHL to allow its players to compete.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was said to be reluctant to accept the IIHF’s funding offer due to concern the money would come from assets that would otherwise be used to grow the game at the grassroots level.
“There are still talks with the NHL about the 2018 Olympics,” Fasel said, according to Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. “By July, we have time to find a solution and convince the commissioner of the NHL that the pros can be there in Pyeongchang.”
He continued: “The problem is the NHL always takes a large number of guests. In Vancouver (2010) we had between 600 and 800 and in Sochi (2014) over 400. In South Korea, it would be similar. Gangneung does not have extra hotel rooms. We can only release these capacities by the end of June, at the latest mid-July.”
Next year’s Games in South Korea are due to take place from February 9-25 – halfway through the NHL season – and the league has repeatedly expressed its concerns over players picking up injuries while competing in Pyeongchang and playing in a market that is not a hotbed for the sport. By contrast, the league is keen to compete at Beijing 2022 and has confirmed plans to stage two annual pre-season games in China later this year. The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will face-off on September 21 in Shanghai and then again in Beijing two days later.
Fasel added: “It is a pity that commissioner Gary Bettman does not understand that Asia has huge potential. The Olympic Games in South Korea can be used to promote our sport there. They’ve also decided to do two exhibition games in China. I mean, together (with Pyeongchang 2018) it goes better.”