Bettman playing hardball, but hasn't closed door on Olympics

Gary Bettman keeps saying it doesn't make sense for the NHL to shut down for the Olympics. But the commissioner continues to delay a final decision on whether his players will be allowed to compete in 2018.

Commissioner continues to delay final decision on 2018

The question of whether NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, pictured above, will allow his players to participate in the next Olympic Games remains after GM meetings on Tuesday. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Predictably, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman continued his stubborn stance on whether or not the world's best hockey players will participate in the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 11 months.

The clock has been ticking for a decision for some time now, but Bettman and the league's board of governors appear to be in no hurry to reach a final verdict.

"There's absolutely nothing new," Bettman said after the NHL's general managers meetings concluded in Boca Raton, Fla., on Wednesday. "And I think the overwhelming sentiment of the teams is that it's very disruptive on the season and there's somewhere between fatigue and negativity on the subject."

Bettman stated his focus is to work on a schedule for 2017-18 without a 17-day break for the Winter Olympics. The commissioner added that the bye week configuration will change next season, with half the teams taking the same week off and the rest of the teams getting a break the following week.

Mixed messages

There have been no talks since International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel met with Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr on Feb. 3 in New York.

"Unless something changes we're not going," deputy commissioner Bill Daly added on Wednesday. "We've said that consistently for three months so there's nothing new about that."

Bettman and Daly have been consistent in their message: shutting down a billion-dollar business for two-and-a-half weeks doesn't make sense.

But if that's truly the case, why did Bettman attempt last fall to squeeze a three-year Collective Bargaining Agreement extension out of the players in exchange for allowing them to play in the Olympics?

Why has it taken five Olympics — including the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan and two more in Europe — for the NHL to learn this lesson in business?

Bettman's proclamation that there is "overwhelming sentiment" among the owners not to participate in the Olympics also is false. It's closer to 50-50, and Bettman indicated as much at his press conference at the all-star game in Los Angeles in January.

"There were probably some owners who always thought the Olympics were a good idea, some who always hated it and then a bunch that really didn't give it much thought until the IOC said, 'we're not going to pay the expenses,'" Bettman said back then.

Who pays?

The last part of that quote is the true crux of the matter. Bettman has been in a snit ever since the IOC decided not to foot the bill for travel, insurance and hospitality, like the IOC did under its previous leadership.

Fasel stepped in last fall to offer that the IIHF will cover the costs, but that wasn't good enough for the NHL commissioner.

Bettman feels slighted that the men's hockey gold-medal game is the marquee event for the Winter Olympics and makes oodles of money for the IOC. Yet under Bach, the IOC could get the NHL's participation free of charge.

A sidebar to this entire matter is the possibility that the NHL could return to the Olympic scene for Beijing in 2022 because Bettman and Daly deem that is a market the NHL wants a footprint in.

But wouldn't playing in Pyeongchang give the NHL a head start in the Asian market? Also, if the league snubs the Olympics this time around, couldn't the IOC make it more difficult for the NHL to return in 2022?

Until Bettman closes the door on Pyeongchang, there still is a chance hockey fans around the world will see Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, Henrik Lundqvist and others strut their stuff in South Korea in February.

After all, if Bettman feels as strongly about his disdain for the Olympics as he has indicated, why does he continue to wait to pull the plug?


Tim has covered the hockey landscape and other sports in Canada for three decades for CBC Sports, the Globe and Mail and Toronto Sun. He has been to three Winter Olympics, 11 Stanley Cups, a world championship as well as 17 world junior championships, 13 Memorial Cups and 13 University Cups. The native of Waterloo, Ont., always has his eye out for an underdog story.