The four sides involved in getting NHL players to the 2014 Winter Olympics are set to meet in New York to try to thrash out a deal.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Players Association head Donald Fehr, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel and a representative of the International Olympic Committee are to meet Thursday and Friday, mainly about NHL participation in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
All four sides agree they want NHL players there, but there are key issues to resolve before a deal is done. No one has set a deadline, so there should still be time to reach an agreement even if it doesn’t happen this week.
It could be a lively encounter, as Fasel set the tone in an interview with the CBC in Sochi on Saturday that came across as dismissive of Bettman and the NHL’s concerns.
He said the only thing that could prevent NHL participation is “ego from some people in North America” and that “I think Gary has no other choice. He has to come to Sochi.”
Bettman will likely have something to say about that.
The NHL and the players association have similar takes on the Games. They want to go, but they also want something in return for handing over the world’s best players for 16 days in mid-season to a tournament that is one of the IOC’s biggest money makers.
It is not so much a cut of the money they are after as that they’d like some things that currently are reserved for broadcast rights holders, like being able to freely use video highlights and other media from the Games on their websites, and to use the Olympic rings.
The IOC is highly protective of its logo and media availability.
The NHL would also like better accommodations and more access to tickets, and wants access for team doctors and guarantees of proper medical equipment and facilities.
The NHLPA also has concerns about insurance coverage for players at summer orientation camps.
Olympic participation was one of the issues left unresolved when the NHL lockout ended Jan. 13.
Bettman has been lobbying for a better deal since the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
The NHL was glad to go in 2010 to Vancouver, which was not far away and where games were aired in prime time in North America. Time, distance and TV ratings will be a bigger factor in Sochi.
The sides have been talking on and off for a couple of years, so far agreeing only that they all want NHL stars at the Games.
There is pressure on all to make a deal.
Fasel runs the IIHF but is also an IOC member, reportedly with ambitions of rising in the IOC ranks. Failure to deliver NHL players to Sochi would not help that cause.
The league has pressure from NHL players and their fans, who almost unanimously support playing.
“I hope it works out,” said Calgary Flames star Jarome Iginla, who has been to three Olympics, winning gold in 2002 and 2010. “I think it’s very good for hockey. It’s a great experience for the fans.
“I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of. Also as a fan, just watching, you love to see those games. But I know there’s a lot of logistics and all that stuff. I hope that gets worked out.”
Then there are Russian stars like Alexander Ovechkin who have vowed to play on home ice in Sochi whether the NHL agrees to go or not.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has also called for NHL participation, mainly to guarantee the home team has all of its best players.
The group is also to discuss reviving the World Cup of Hockey, which was held in 1996 and 2004 but then vanished.
There is talk of holding it every four years, midway between Olympic years, likely in September. They may also discuss whether it is worth holding a world championship during Olympic years.
Hockey Canada says it does not yet have an alternative plan in place if the NHL does not go to Sochi.
It could end up looking like the teams that play for Canada at the Spengler Cup each December: former NHL players now skating for European clubs.
The league and NHLPA also hope to produce final wording of their new CBA by Saturday, but as one official said “that’s a whole other group of lawyers” than the ones at the Olympic talks.
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