On Tuesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman joined International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr for a news conference in Sochi, Russia. For what it’s worth, both Bettman (who has presided over two NHL lockouts) and the NHL players participating in the Olympics seem to be enjoying the tournament.
“We are delighted to be here,” said Bettman. “Everything we see here is a terrific experience.”
Even so, the Commissioner refused to commit to sending NHL players to any Olympics beyond the 2014 games.
"It's not anything we're focused on dealing with right now," he said.
Starting in Nagano, Japan in 1998, the NHL has sent players to each of the past five Winter Olympics. But with the 2018 games set to be held in an area that is hardly a hockey hotbed; that streak may be in jeopardy.
The NHL, NHLPA and IIHF will meet in the future to discuss the situation; with a decision possibly being made in the next six months. A decision in which the NHL players’ desire to participate, could prove to be a large factor.
"None of this moves forward, if it moves forward at all, if the players don't want to play," said Bettman. "If the players ever said, we're not interested, we're not going to force them to go."
IIHF President Fasel (who also sits on the IOC Executive Board) does not, however, think that that will be an issue.
"There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete," said Fasel. "Nothing."
Bettman seemed to disagree with Fasel’s statement, interjecting: "Except for winning the Stanley Cup."
As for the NHL players, it is not expected that they will want to miss the opportunity to represent their country at the Olympics; as most seem to take to the task with pride.
"The Olympic Games is obviously a pinnacle of sports and it represents a lot," said New York Islanders captain John Tavares (who is competing for Canada). "I think it's important we continue to try and find a way to (make it) work. We certainly enjoy coming as players."
Unfortunately the desire of the players is not the only issue. Owners are weary of allowing the necessary work stoppage to accommodate the Olympics, especially considering it comes at a time when competition for U.S. fans from other sports is relatively low. There is also the issue of players getting injured in Olympic competition, and missing time with the NHL teams as a result. That being said, the NHL is not planning to move away from international competition altogether.
"The fact of the matter is, whatever we decide to do I believe in the not-too-distant future the NHL and NHLPA will be in a position to talk about other international initiatives that we're discussing, including bringing back the World Cup," said Bettman . "We see international competition on the horizon; it's really just a question of what the format will be."