By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – The National Hockey League will not take part in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, saying on Monday that it would finalize its 2017-18 season schedule without a Winter Games break. It declared negotiations “officially closed”.
The NHL statement brings an end to years of tense bargaining between the International Olympic Committee, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the NHL over the league’s continuing participation in the Winter Games.
Unhappy about having to shut down for almost three weeks in the middle of their regular season, the NHL had been seeking major concessions from the IOC, including recognition comparable to that of an Olympic Top Sponsor, for taking part in the South Korea games.
The NHL had participated in every Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.
The decision will impact almost every major hockey playing nation with the Sweden, Finland, Russia, United States and Canadian teams almost entirely made up of NHL players.
Some players, however, have already said they would play in Pyeongchang no matter what and the NHL’s decision also earned a rebuke from the players’ union.
“Players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision,” the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) said in a statement.
“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.”
The NHL’s absence will be a blow to the Olympics as the hockey competition was one of the Winter Games premier events and pulled in top ratings, particularly in North America.
The decision, however, has meant the sport has lost a major opportunity to showcase itself in new markets, the NHLPA said.
“A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia,” the NHLPA said.
“This impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.”
NO MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE
The NHL said they had become frustrated with months of inaction and “no meaningful dialogue”.
“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,” the league said.
“And 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 finalizing our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games.
“We now consider the matter officially closed.”
CONCERN OVER COSTS
NHL participation in the Olympics had appeared in danger after the IOC said it would no longer cover the cost of players insurance and transportation as it had done in previous Olympics.
Last week the IIHF said it had agreed to cover those expenses, estimated at $20 million, but the NHL was unmoved.
For handing over a talent pool with contracts valued at $3.5 billion, the NHL was seeking something akin to IOC Top Sponsor status which would allow the league to market the Winter Games on its platforms.
The NHL decision effectively ends any possibility of the league playing in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The IOC had dangled the 2022 Winter Games and a gateway into the China market as a possible inducement to NHL officials.
Last week, however, the NHL showed it was prepared to enter the Chinese marketplace with or without the IOC, announcing the league would stage games next season in Beijing and Shanghai.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Augusta, Georgia, editing by Gene Cherry/Greg Stutchbury)