The International Olympic Committee and hockey's governing body will have to make concessions before the NHL sends the world's best players to the Winter Games in South Korea next year, commissioner Gary Bettman said on Friday.
"As things stand today, you should assume we're not going," he said.
Bettman made it clear at a breakfast with Chicago business leaders that league owners don't want to stop their season for three weeks again and put their stars at risk of injury without what they consider a tangible return. The reluctance is not new, but the NHL has participated in every Winter Olympics since 1998.
"If nothing changes, I don't see anybody participating," Bettman said. "If somebody proposes something that's pragmatic, that's radically different, that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, 'You know what, we don't like going, but on balance it's worth it because of this,' we'll have to look at it again."
He said the league has no timetable to resolve the dispute. The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel, said Thursday he needs to know by the end of April.
Asked exactly what the league would need, Bettman said: "I don't know. It's something I would have to go back to the clubs on because the clubs are overwhelmingly negative on the subject."
Besides the three-week layoff and the possible injuries stemming from a condensed schedule, Bettman mentioned the expense of sending players to the Olympics. The IIHF came up with the $10 million necessary after the IOC indicated it would not cover the cost as it did in the past, including $14 million for the 2014 Winter Games.
"The league isn't anti-Olympics," Bettman said. "We've been to five of them. The problem is the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there's no football, no baseball, there's only basketball and us. To do it where there's no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com, for all of our social media platforms — we just disappear."
He added: "I can't tell you that there's been any tangible benefit, particularly here in North America, of doing it. We are shut out by the Olympics."
NHL Players Association Executive Director Don Fehr said players want to participate. He sees a chance for the NHL to build its fan base in Asia, where the next two Winter Olympics will be held.
While the league isn't particularly interested in marketing in South Korea, it does have its eyes on China and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, where Bettman is scheduled to be next week. Fasel said it may be "difficult" for the league to count on going to China in 2022 if it skips South Korea.
"If that's the IOC's and IIHF's position, that's their position," Bettman said. "I'm not going to get into a public debate with them. They're entitled to take whatever position they want."
The league could also be in for a showdown with players if an Olympic break is not scheduled next season. Washington Capitals and Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin has vowed to go, and he might not be the only one.
"We'll deal with that at the appropriate time if it comes to that," Bettman said.
For now, he's not slamming the door on the Olympics. But unless concessions are made, he expects the world's best players to suit up for the teams that sign their checks — not their countries.
"If somebody has something they want to tell us, we'll listen until there's a deadline," Bettman said. "If nobody says anything to us that will change the thinking of the teams, then nothing will happen."