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NHL closes door on Pyeongchang 2018 participation

North American ice hockey league the NHL has confirmed it will not participate in the 2018 winter Olympic Games, stating no “meaningful dialogue” has 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 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The NHL said in a statement: “We have previously made clear that while the overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players, we were open to hearing from any of the other parties who might have an interest in the issue (e.g., the IOC, the IIHF, the NHLPA, etc.) as to reasons the board of governors might be interested in re-evaluating their strongly held views on the subject.

“A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialised. Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018. And (players’ union) the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.

“As a result, and in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalising our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed.”

Monday’s announcement came after the IOC last week 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 (€18.4m) may help persuade the NHL to allow its players to compete.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman last month said “people should assume” that players from the North American league will not be competing at Pyeongchang 2018 with talks between the relevant parties having reached an impasse. NHL.com reported that Bettman was 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.

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 last week 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.

Talks between the NHL, the IIHF and the IOC last took place in February. The NHL was also reportedly seeking an agreement that would grant it the status of an IOC ‘TOP Partner’ for shutting down during its season, allowing it to market the Games on its platforms.

NHL.com added that the league conducted polls in both Canada and the United States to determine if fans were in favour of the league breaking in February to allow players to compete in the Olympics. In the United States, 73 per cent said they were not in favour. In Canada, it was 53 per cent against the break.

NHL players have been keen to continue competing at the Olympics and the NHLPA slammed the league’s decision. The union said in a statement: “The players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL's shortsighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics.

“Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season's schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage. ​

“A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia. The NHL may believe it is penalising the IOC or the players, or both, for not giving the owners some meaningful concessions in order to induce them to agree to go to Pyeongchang. Instead this impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.”