The NHL will likely make a decision about its participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea within six months, deputy commissioner Bill Daly predicted Tuesday in an far-ranging interview that touched on the NHL's Olympic participation, past, present and future.
"I can tell you, (a decision) shouldn't take all that long," said Daly, soon after arriving with the NHL contingent for what many believe could be the league's last involvement with the Olympic Games. "It's part of a broader discussion with the players association about what we're doing internationally. That discussion is under way. I would anticipate a fairly quick resolution with respect to the Olympics – six months."
For years now, the NHL has wanted to revive the World Cup of hockey, on the grounds that if the players wanted a best-on-best competition, it should occur under the NHL's business umbrella. The NHL and the players association didn't formalize its participation agreement for the 2014 Olympics until last summer, barely eight months before the event took place. Ultimately, the league received concessions from the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation on issues ranging from insurance and transportation to media rights and access.
The new agreement gives the NHL a greater overall presence at these Games. For example, they are able to show highlights on the NHL Network, which is doing a studio show live from Sochi.
According to Daly, success will be measured two ways – if it is "a really good competitive tournament – and no injuries.
"Player injury is an important factor. In Torino, in 2006, we had a couple of key players get injured and not be able to help their NHL teams down the stretch and that left a sour taste in the heads of a lot of our owners. In Vancouver, we were almost injury free, so it was a totally different experience.
"There are a lot of metrics that go on in the Olympic Games and we'll do a post-Olympic report, but I'm not sure there's anything that's absolute in terms of – well, if we hit so many eyeballs, we're coming back or not coming back. It's going to be more of a touch and feel thing."
Although the IIHF sees Asia as the next big market for growing the game internationally, Daly wasn't sure if going to South Korea in 2018 would necessarily help market the NHL there on a long-term basis.
"You're never going to ignore the Asian market," said Daly, "it's very important. But I also don't view it as a realistic short-term objective to make an impact in the Asian market. It's more of a long-term objective for the sport generally."
In 1998, the NHL's first Olympic involvement took them to Nagano, Japan, and they followed up with NHL regular-season games there for two years, but found no significant spike in interest.
"We're a different company today than we were in 1998, a different stage in our evolution and development," said Daly. "It has a much higher profile. As a business, we're more successful. We're much more visible on the world stage. We're much more of a media company and less of a licensee of rights. I think that's a factor when you consider whether the Olympics make sense for you going forward."
The NHL's rank-and-file will always want to go to the Olympics every four years because it is a "player friendly event," said Daly, noting "the players who get to participate really enjoy the opportunity and the players who don't get the opportunity enjoy the time off in February. So from a players' perspective, it's a very player friendly event.
"From a league and NHLPA perspective, we have to take a much broader view of it. Does it make sense for our business overall? And I think the players association has a responsibility for that as well, in answering that question the right way. I would imagine they're a little more conflicted than we are in making that judgment."
The one thing the NHL cannot duplicate with a World Cup is the draw and the aura of the Olympics, a point Daly was prepared to concede.
"Having said that, there are a lot of negatives that come along with the Olympics," he said. "The fact is, we're guests here. It's not our tournament. In terms of making it as good as it can be, we really don't have control over that. There are positives and negatives, with everything."