TORONTO — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated owners’ current lack of interest in Olympic participation, but his counterpart Donald Fehr painted a different picture of where things stand for the South Korea Games.
“I’m more optimistic now that I ever have been, at least as far as we’re concerned, that we’ll be able to reach an appropriate agreement with the IIHF to allow for the players to go,” Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, told assembled media before the Centennial Classic.
“So I assume there will be further discussions over the course of the next several weeks and I choose to be optimistic on this one. We’ll see.'”
Asked why exactly he felt more optimistic now, Fehr didn’t really have specific reasons.
“You get a sense of things as they go along, you get a sense of things and how they’re likely to end up; doesn’t mean you’re always right, but you get a sense of things,” said Fehr.
While the IOC has previously pointed to a Jan. 15 deadline, neither Bettman nor Fehr believes there’s any hard deadline.
The NHL players, as always, want to continue Olympic participation but not at the cost of extending the current CBA as it currently exists. The NHL suggested a three-year CBA extension earlier this season in exchange for an international package which would include two Olympic Games, two World Cups of Hockey, plus other international events.
But the players officially rejected the verbal offer from the league in large part, it is believed, because of their hatred of escrow in which they pay back the league money from their paychecks in order to balance the 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue with owners.
So what now? The clock is ticking. Many believe a decision either way on South Korea must come by the end of the month.
“We’re not the ones who are setting the deadline on the clock,” Bettman said Sunday. “Others seem to be doing it. Nothing’s really new to report since the board meeting in December. The players’ association had told us where they were in advance of that meeting. We haven’t had any further discussions with the IOC or the IIHF and absent some compelling reason I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of sentiment on the part of the clubs to go through the disruption of taking three almost weeks off during the season. We’ve been there, done that five times and while Vancouver and Salt Lake City were different, when you’re halfway around the world it’s not the easiest thing to have in our season. Not just the risk of injury … the compression to the regular season is something that concerns us. We’re hearing complaints now about the five-day break. While players say they like the five-day break they’re also saying they don’t like the compression that goes along with it and that’s something that’s of great concern to us as well.”
Interestingly, Fehr suggested Sunday that perhaps the players would be interested in a long-term international package with the NHL that is separate of the CBA.
“It is always conceivable that you can do a long-term international program which would sweep in all kinds of events if even if you don’t have a CBA extension, even if that means that there are some uncertainties,” Fehr said. If not, a one-off agreement just for South Korea is what the NHLPA will push for, Fehr also said.