National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner Gary Bettman has said the impact of the return of its World Cup of Hockey property will not determine whether the North American league continues its participation in the winter Olympic Games.
Bettman was speaking as the World Cup returned to action in Toronto, Canada on Saturday. The World Cup and its predecessor, the Canada Cup, were previously held seven times from 1976 through to 2004. The last edition of the World Cup was staged in seven cities in North America and Europe, with the final in Toronto. However, this year all tournament games will be played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto through to October 1.
The competition is being organised by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) and its return has long been seen as a further potential stumbling block to the long-running debate over the presence of North American-based players at the Olympic Games.
However, Bettman maintained it was ongoing issues with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) that would determine the NHL’s participation at the Olympics, not the World Cup. NHL players have been allowed to compete at the Games since the 1998 edition, but squabbles over covering costs have been common in the build-up to the Olympics since then and a deal is yet to be reached for PyeongChang 2018.
The NHL is effectively forced to shut down in the middle of its season to accommodate the Olympics and the IOC further antagonised the league by announcing earlier this year it would no longer cover insurance and travel costs. “The fact we are doing a World Cup and we believe it is going to be huge success, and that we are going to continue to do it on a regular basis does not mean we can't also do the Olympics,” Bettman said, according to the Reuters news agency.
“The fact that there are complications relevant to the stopping of our season in the middle at a very prime time … and the difficulties of dealing with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation are really the factors if we continue to go.”
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr admitted that the Olympics is something the players want to compete in and sees no reason why there cannot be room for both events. “The events are fundamentally different, they are played different times and there is a long, long history to the Olympics,” Fehr said.
“The players want to play provided an appropriate agreement can be reached so you can shut the season down. Shutting down a $4bn (€3.59bn) business for several weeks is not the easiest thing in the world. Having said that, I don't see any reason why one would preclude the other.”
Bettman stated that the NHL is keen that the World Cup provide a springboard for the league’s global expansion efforts, adding that talks are continuing over a North America v Europe Ryder Cup-style competition along with other tournaments and events in Europe.
“The game plan is to use this (World Cup) as a foundation for new, more energised effort to give us a bigger presence outside of North America,” Bettman said. “Whether or not it is a new event, more exhibition games against local teams, exhibition games among NHL teams, regular season games, clinics, it is all part of what we want to do, need to do to grow the game at all levels throughout the world.”