By Karolos Grohmann

 

AARHUS, Denmark (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has expressed regret that the world's best ice hockey players will miss next year's Winter Games after the National Hockey League opted against participation in Pyeongchang.

 

The NHL reached a decision on Monday to not release its players for the Games, saying talks to find a solution to the problem of halting its league mid-season to accommodate the Olympics in the past had not been successful.

 

"I feel sorry for the athletes because for them it must be a great disappointment. Obviously, they (NHL) wanted more money or whatever; we do not know what they really wanted," IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters in Aarhus on Tuesday.

 

"The IOC policy cannot be there to give more money, finances, to a commercially orientated owner of a club in a national league," Bach added, admitting that he had anticipated the NHL's decision.

 

The Pyeongchang Games will take place in South Korea from Feb. 9-25 next year.

Unhappy over the prospect of shutting down their season for almost three weeks, the NHL had been seeking major concessions from the IOC, including recognition comparable to that of an Olympic top sponsor.

The IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) had agreed to ensure payment of transportation and insurance for the players after having initially refused, in an effort to foster an agreement.

PLAYERS UPSET

The NHL decision will impact almost every major hockey-playing nation since the Swedish, Finnish, Russian, U.S. and Canadian teams are almost entirely comprised of NHL representatives.

However, some players have said they would like to go to the Games irrespective of what the league decided.

"We players knew nothing, because naturally they haven't spoken to us," Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson told Swedish sports newspaper Sportbladet. "It's so idiotic. Whoever did this has obviously no idea what they are doing."

With both the 2018 and the 2022 Winter Games in Asia and the NHL making efforts to tap into that region's lucrative market, the logic behind the decision was lost on Swedish goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who plays for the New York Rangers.

"Disappointing news, @NHL won't be part of the Olympics 2018. A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted," he said on Twitter.

Former Stanley Cup winner and current South Korea ice hockey program director Jim Paek told Reuters that hockey fans would still watch the competition.

"The Olympic spirit, I believe, is that your best athletes have an opportunity to represent their country," he said.

"That being said, there are great hockey players all over the world. I hope the decision by the NHL will not affect the new hockey viewers' opinion. I truly believe the real hockey fan will still be excited about the Olympics."

While it remains unclear whether many NHL players could still compete in the Olympics, some club owners, including Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, have said they would support players who want to represent their country.

Bach said all players, including those in the NHL, were welcome should they decide to compete in South Korea.

"For us, the players are always welcome. If any NHL player wants to join his Olympic team then he is most welcome."

(Additional reporting by Philip O'Connor in Stockholm and Peter Rutherford in Seoul; Editing by Mark Heinrich)