The NHL considers the matter closed, but the league's decision to prevent its players from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics could trigger another labour dispute the next time the two sides negotiate a collective agreement.
NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr told a Toronto radio station on Wednesday that his constituency had long memories, saying the Olympic dispute could colour negotiations when the two sides revisit the labour deal, known as the CBA, as early as 2019.
"If the notion is that players will just say, 'oh well, the CBA didn't provide for it' or 'we wish it were different' – and we could just go on with life as usual or as if this hadn't happened, I think that's a very, very, very unlikely possibility," Mr. Fehr told Sportsnet The Fan 590.
At the heart of the dispute is the NHL's unwillingness to go to Pyeongchang for what are largely business reasons – a disruption to its schedule, the risk of injury to top players, an unattractive time zone and the inability to leverage broadcast and marketing opportunities that come from having the NHL at the Olympics.
The NHL players' collective desire to represent their countries at the international competition, meanwhile, is more sentimental.
"Guys love representing their country on [the Olympic] stage and it is a bitter pill to swallow for sure," the Toronto Maple Leafs' U.S.-born forward James van Riemsdyk told reporters Tuesday. "As players, we have shown we want to be there and made that very clear, but this decision was made outside of us."
Ultimately, the decision not to go to the Pyeongchang Games was made by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who had been seeking concessions from either the International Olympic Committee or the NHLPA, saying he needed a sweeter deal in order to sell Olympic participation to his bosses, the NHL owners, who firmly opposed the concept.
The net result of a stalemate almost four years in the making is a lot of unhappy players. Some – such as the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin – say they are prepared to defy the NHL edict and go anyway, something the Russian sniper has been saying all along. His Capitals teammate and fellow Russian national Evgeny Kuznetsov shared the same resolve.
It is also a continuation of the climate of mistrust that has existed between the league and the union for the better part of two decades.
NHL Olympic player participation had been part of the previous labour agreement, but when the latest contract was forged – in December of 2012, in the midst of the third lockout under Mr. Bettman's watch – it wasn't made part of the new deal, which is how it has since became a negotiating chip.
The owners and players have the ability of opt out of the current contract in September, 2019.
Last November, Mr. Bettman offered to exchange a fully fleshed-out international calendar of events that included the Olympics, the World Cup and a Ryder Cup-style of tournament that would have been played in Europe in exchange for a contract extension. The NHLPA rejected Mr. Bettman's proposal because it was framed as a take-it-or-leave-it offer, instead of as a starting point for further talks.
One of the key underlying issues now is how the NHL might prevent a player such as Mr. Ovechkin from going to Pyeongchang without league approval.
Ultimately, it may fall to the International Ice Hockey Federation to rule which players are eligible to play in Pyeongchang. That, in turn, could create a conundrum for IIHF president René Fasel, who adamantly lobbied for NHL players to go to the Olympics.
Could Mr. Fasel bring himself to enforce rules that prevent NHL players from attending, after publicly promoting the concept of a best-on-best men's Olympic hockey tournament for the better part of forever?
"It puts Fasel in a difficult position," said player agent Anton Thun, who has represented players for more than 30 years. "He could say, 'Yes, we have agreements in place with the NHL and if a player is suspended, he can't play in our tournament.' I don't know – but those are going to be really interesting questions … because he is going to have to make that decision with at least one player [Mr. Ovechkin] at some point."
The IOC put pressure on the NHL last week by saying in effect that if the NHL didn't go to Pyeongchang in 2018, it might not be invited to play four years later in Beijing, where the NHL is in the early stages of a marketing push.
Even though an Olympics in China poses the same obstacles as South Korea – risk of player injury, unfavourable time zones, a 17-day mid-season interruption – the NHL seems willing to overlook those because of the business possibilities China presents. The status quo deal from Sochi, or Vancouver, may be enough for the NHL to go to an Olympics in China.
The league's rising young stars, Connor McDavid or Auston Mathews, may eventually get a chance to represent their countries at an Olympics. It just likely means they'll have to postpone the possibility for another four years.
"The IOC and the Olympics need hockey less to build the game than hockey needs Olympic exposure in my opinion," Mr. Thun said. "The reality is, the IOC doesn't need the NHL. The Olympics existed before NBA or NHL players ever went to the Olympics and they will continue to exist if neither goes. The best soccer players in the world don't go to the Olympics, and the Olympics continue to thrive, even without the best.
"What the NHL is losing is the ability to promote Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby. Somebody is going to score the gold-medal-winning goal in Pyeongchang or Beijing. If it happens to be Joe Smith from the University of North Dakota or Pavel Jones from Moscow, it's not going to matter. But if it happens to be Sidney Crosby, it might help the NHL."
Many of Canada's top players, such as Mr. Crosby or reigning Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty, have been to the Olympics before. Brad Marchand, the Boston Bruins' scoring leader and World Cup scoring hero, hasn't had a chance to go yet. Mr. Marchand wants to go and believes a solution can still be found at the 11th hour, if both sides are willing to compromise.