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IIHF president sets out timeline for NHL Olympics decision

Rene Fasel, IIHF president and member of the IOC Coordination Commission, speaks during the 4th Meeting of the IOC Coordination Commission for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games (by Xinyu Cui/Getty Images)

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) president René Fasel has said the sport’s world governing body needs a response from North American league the NHL before August on whether it will release its players to compete in the 2022 winter Olympic Games.

Fasel, speaking yesterday (Sunday) at the closing press conference for the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech cities of Ostrava and Trinec, said a decision would need to be made before the IIHF stages its final qualifying tournament for Beijing 2022. This commences in late August and Fasel is seeking to avoid a repeat of the situation that marred the ice hockey tournament at Pyeongchang’s 2018 winter Games.

In April 2017, the NHL 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 could compete in Pyeongchang. The NHL’s decision ended a run of five consecutive winter Games with the league’s players and followed months of back and forth between the organisation, the IIHF and International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The 2018 Games in South Korea took place from February 9-25 – halfway through the NHL season – and the league repeatedly expressed its concerns over players picking up injuries while competing in Pyeongchang and playing in a market that was not a hotbed for the sport. Fasel, who said he spoke to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before the Christmas holidays, stated: “We would like to have a decision as early as possible if they’re coming to Beijing.

“In Pyeongchang there was a late ‘No’. This meant the North American teams, [the] US and Canada, had problems to find players and build up a good team. If there is a ‘No’ these teams need time to prepare a competitive team to go to the Olympics in 2022. We want to have an early answer from (Players’ Association) the NHLPA and NHL if they’re coming or not.”

Playing in China, a target market for the NHL, would be more compelling for the League, but Bettman reiterated last month that suspending the season for a fortnight is “disruptive”. There is also the prospect of the NHL reintroducing the World Cup of Hockey tournament.

In October, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the League and the NHLPA were actively looking to revive the World Cup. A proposed tournament in 2020 was shelved in January 2019 amid uncertainty over labour relations in the league. But with a Collective Bargaining Agreement now firmly in place until September 2022, Daly said there was time for the next World Cup of Hockey to be planned and played.

The World Cup of Hockey, a multi-nation tournament organised by the NHL and NHLPA, was last played in 2016 in Toronto. It was also previously staged in 1996 and 2004. Regarding the NHL’s commitment to Beijing 2022, Fasel added: “The first mission is to promote the game of ice hockey.

“The Olympics is a unique platform we can use, especially in Asia, with the best on best format. Asia represents two-thirds of the world’s population. I consider Gary a smart person. At the end he will come, I hope.”