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Pyeongchang 2018 chief retains hope of NHL participation

Pyeongchang Organising Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic winter Games (POCOG) president Lee Hee-beom has said local organisers are still holding out hope that stars from North American ice hockey league the NHL will compete at the event next year, adding that work on competition venues is continuing as planned.

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 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Speaking during the IIHF World Championships in Paris yesterday (Monday), Lee said, according to the Associated Press news agency: “I don’t think they (the NHL) made the final decision so far. There is still room to discuss and negotiate.”

Earlier this month, IIHF president René Fasel said he was hopeful a deal could yet be struck for NHL participation at the 2018 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.

Lee met with Fasel in Paris on Monday to discuss the issue. “I had a very useful breakfast meeting with René Fasel this morning and I also met many ice hockey leaders in Europe,” Lee said. “We totally agreed between IIHF and Pyeongchang organising committee that we are in the same boat. We will cooperate with the IIHF to further develop the Olympic (hockey) venues.”

Lee added: “I’m ready to meet with their (the NHL) delegations wherever it is they say to do so. Very recently I met their delegation in Pyeongchang, not only the athletes’ side, but also the labour union (NHLPA) side. Not only in Pyeongchang, but also in New York. Nothing is concluded until the final conclusion is made.”

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.

Lee said IOC president Thomas Bach is also offering his support in an attempt to broker an agreement with the NHL. “I have discussed with him over the phone last week,” he said. “We are widely open to discuss this matter. We are discussing not only with IIHF but also with the IOC in many channels.”