The Winter Olympics should be a celebration of champions. Think of Jean Claude Killy elegantly slaloming down the slopes, figure skating’s ‘battle of the Brians’ at Calgary or perhaps the iconic 1980 men's ice hockey final between the USA and USSR, dubbed the ‘Miracle on Ice’.
Since its debut in 1924, the men’s ice hockey final has undeniably become one of the showpiece events of any Games, bringing with it tribalism, passion and a sport that transcends fans of the winter disciplines. For the past six Winter Olympics, the sport’s national federations have been able to pick the leading players from their respective countries. Unfortunately, a year out from PyeongChang’s opening ceremony, it still seems they may be denied such a privilege - and fans across the globe may be denied the chance to watch the best in action.
The potential dilution of the player pool has come as a result of an ongoing dispute between international ice hockey’s three major bodies - the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and ice hockey’s preeminent domestic competition, the National Hockey League (NHL).
The fractious three way stand-off centres on the IOC and the IIHF’s insistence that they will stop covering the cost of transportation and accommodation fees for NHL players, as they have previously. With the NHL unwilling to take on those expenses, in full knowledge of the leverage it holds by dint of its franchises paying the top players, negotiations have come to a standstill.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman brought the issue to a head during last year’s Stanley Cup, the league’s championship series, when he pointed out that the IOC and the IIHF have funded the considerable out-of-pocket cost of NHL players attending the past five Olympics. The international bodies are believed to have spent around US$14 million to cover travel and insurance for NHL players for the 2014 Olympics in Russia.
"If presidents Thomas Bach of the IOC and Rene Fasel of the IIHF are unable to resolve the expense issue, I have no doubt that it will have a significant impact on our decision,” said Bettman. “I'm pretty sure that our teams are not really interested in paying for the privilege of disrupting our season, but we'll have to see what they ultimately decide to do."
Bettman believes while Fasel “very much wants to try to find a solution”, IOC president Bach will prove to be more of an obdurate stopping block. Since his election in 2013 the German has ruled out giving special subsidies to any sport, a stance he looks unlikely to drop. The three parties did, nevertheless, meet for a round of negotiations in New York last week, together with National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) executive director Donald Fehr. The talks are, however, believed to have made no change to the lengthening impasse.
“I think it was very important to get us and the IOC and NHL/NHLPA together,” said Fasel, who is said to have orchestrated Friday's meeting. “This was a courtesy visit and I hope we can build on this and continue to work to a solution that will benefit the sport of ice hockey.
“Therefore, we hope even more that the international federation and the NHL will reach a solution to make the Olympic dreams of the players come true.”
However, if a compromise is agreed upon it does not necessarily guarantee the release of the players by Bettman, who suggests that the NHL and the NHLPA “may have different views”. Moreover, he iterated that the issue that he takes most umbrage with is that the Games “comes right in the middle of the season” and it is not only a remuneration for sending 150 players but the “logistical costly elements” to compressing its season that he is after. The NHL is currently the only professional sports league that pauses its season to allow its athletes to participate in the Olympics - a distinction that grates with the league and its team owners, who have complained to Bettman that their highly paid stars have returned from previous editions showing signs of "fatigue" and in some cases injured.
Nevertheless, it should not come as a surprise that the NHL and the NHLPA are not necessarily singing from the same hymn sheet. Bettman became the league’s first ever commissioner when the position was created in 1993 and has presided over a period of rapid financial growth: its annual revenues have risen from US$400 million when he was hired to over US$4.1 billion at the end of last season. When the New Yorker was installed by the owners, he was given a mandate to modernise the sport, open up the US market and put to an end the continual labour unrest with the NHLPA, yet the reality is that there have been three lockouts during his 24-year tenure.
While there are reports that the IIHF has come up with the money needed to cover travel and insurance costs for players, they also come with suggestions that the Olympics has become a mere pawn in the dispute between the NHL and NHLPA. At the end of 2016, the league offered the union the compromise of extending their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for a further three years in exchange for green lighting player participation in the 2018 Olympics. Fehr refused, purporting a lack of appetite amongst players for such a long agreement that would effectively last their whole careers.
When SportsPro asked the NHL for comment from the commissioner, it was sent a short transcript from the league’s December board meeting, along with an assertion that Bettman would only speak further in the event of new developments. The transcript quoted Bettman’s response to a question from the floor noting Fasel’s protestations that the IIHF has the money to cover the cost of the NHL players playing in the next Olympics, and asking what the biggest issue actually was.
“The biggest hurdle is, I think, there's concern among the teams about the ongoing disruption to the season, about a compressed schedule and a whole host of other things you have to talk about,” said Bettman. “We've never said, and I've been very clear about it, that just raising the money was the only issue. We've said from the outset that if they're not going to pay the expenses, we don't even have to think about this.
“What I think has happened, though: there were probably some owners over time who always thought the Olympics were a good idea; there were some owners who always hated it, and then there were probably a bunch of clubs that really didn't give it much thought until the IOC said 'We're not going to pay the expenses.' And then I think I caused a number of clubs to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, if that's how they value our participation, why are we knocking ourselves out?’
“So whether or not it gets paid, and we haven't been assured that it's being paid, we haven't been told where the money is coming from, and frankly, I have on some level - perhaps it's emotional - a real problem if money that would otherwise go to hockey development is being diverted for this purpose. But I think when the IOC said, 'You know what, we don't think it's worth it, we're not going to pay,' I think that may have opened a whole can of worms.”
Fasel’s office responded likewise, saying that the Swiss would not be commenting any further on the Olympic situation until there is progress to report. A statement added: ‘The IIHF fully supports NHL participation in the Olympics and is working hard to find a solution that is satisfactory to all the stakeholders involved and preserves the best-on-best format that has been part of the Games since Nagano 1998.’
A further twist in the tale is the confirmation from Bettman that the NHL is more than willing to allow players to go to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and failure to compromise over PyeongChang will not affect the participation in those Games. The NHL is attempting to expand its potential into China, signing a five-year strategic partnership with Tencent that will see the Chinese internet giant carry selected games on its video sites and mobile. Furthermore, ESPN has reported that two pre-season games between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks will be played in the country from next year.
With all stakeholders seemingly blinkered by their own agendas it appears more and more likely that the top ice hockey players will not be available in PyeongChang. Nearly every team will be affected by the absence of NHL players but it would, of course, be the teams from the USA and Canada that would be damaged the most.
Understandably, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is already being forced to look at alternative player options, most probably from college teams and minor leagues. Scott Blackmun, the chief executive of USOC, told Reuters that it has “had discussions with USA Hockey about a Plan B”.
"Obviously it creates more challenges for them and for us from an organisational standpoint, we're still very hopeful the NHL players will be there,” continued Blackmun. “We know they [players] want to be there and we understand the challenges it creates for the league. We are certainly exploring all avenues that would allow that to happen."