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International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel poses for a picture with National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman after a joint news conference at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 18, 2014. (JIM YOUNG/REUTERS)
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel poses for a picture with National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman after a joint news conference at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, February 18, 2014. (JIM YOUNG/REUTERS)

Bettman sees international competition on the horizon, but no decision on Olympic participation Add to ...

There was one glorious bit of byplay between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel Tuesday during an otherwise predictable press conference with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr that primarily focused on the NHL’s plans for international hockey moving forward.

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According to Bettman, “in the not too distant future, the NHL and the NHLPA will be in a position to talk about other international initiatives that we’re discussing, including bringing back the World Cup.

“We see international competition on the horizon. It’s really just a question of what the format will be.”

But Bettman didn’t say if reviving the World Cup – which has been on hiatus since 2004 – would preclude any future NHL Olympic participation. The World Cup - a joint NHL/NHLPA initiative - was introduced in 1996 as a successor to the Canada Cup. It has only been played twice, largely because the NHL believed that too many best-on-best competitions was putting too great a strain on the league’s elite players.

If the NHL decides to go forward with a World Cup – possibly as early as the fall of 2015, to avoid conflicting with the 2016 Summer Games – would that mean no Olympics for 2018 in Pyeonchang, South Korea? Bettman didn’t address it specifically, nor did deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who commented: “What I’d say is there are a lot of possibilities.”

Fasel is of course an unabashed supporter of the NHL’s Olympic participation and waxed on eloquently about what Olympic success means.

“There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete,” said Fasel. “Nothing.”

To which Bettman, sitting beside him at the podium interjected: “Except for winning the Stanley Cup.”

Fasel: “As I said, the Olympic gold medal, you cannot replace it … Look at the faces here next Sunday when the players will get the Olympic gold medal. So different.”

Bettman and Fasel are old sparring partners so the fact of them agreeing to disagree was not unusual.

Even though the NHL has been involved in the last five Olympic Games, none of the negotiations have ever gone particularly smoothly or well. The NHL’s participation in Sochi wasn’t confirmed until this past summer because of complicated negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and the IIHF over who pays for transportation, insurance and other costs associated with the event.

Bettman reiterated a point made Daly in a Globe And Mail interview last week – that ideally, they’d like to have a decision about 2018 within the next six months if possible.

“I believe my colleague Mr. Daly was quoted earlier in the week that he had hoped, as do I, that it could be done in six months,” said Bettman. “We don’t see why it couldn’t be done in that time frame.

“Frankly, if we are going to continue to participate, having as long a runway as possible to use the advantages would be a good thing. And if we’re not going to participate, given the various national federations an opportunity to adjust to that, giving them enough time as possible would be good. But as much as we’d like to, you’re dealing with a guesstimate on a timetable because there are constituencies that not each of us control that we have to rely on others to determine.

“We are here because we think it’s great to be here today for this tournament. What comes next we’ll all have to figure out, as we’ve done each of the other times that the NHL players have participated.”

Fasel and Bettman spend the better part of 20 minutes, dancing around the issue, sometimes in comical and amusing style.

Bettman wasn’t budging off the company line – that no decision will be made about the NHL’s participation until after the 2014 Olympics is completed and the process can be reviewed. Fasel unequivocally supports of the Olympics, but also knows from past experience that pressing Bettman for a commitment at this stage of the proceedings is fruitless, so he doesn’t bother.

Besides, said Fasel, it wouldn’t be the same if he and Bettman came to an easy, early agreement.

“I love to bargain with these people after every Olympics,” said Fasel. “It would be boring if we decided the next 10 or 20 years with the NHL. It’s so nice to be with Gary in New York and fight and have some discussions.”

Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek