IIHF president worried NHL players will skip 2018 Olympics
Travel, insurance costs at heart of disagreement with IOC
The head of ice hockey's international body says there's a strong possibility that NHL players won't be competing at the next Winter Olympics.
International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel puts the chances at 60 per cent that the NHL will decline to go to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of a lack of money to cover player insurance.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Fasel said the IOC has cancelled its contribution to player travel and insurance costs for Pyeongchang, leaving the IIHF facing a $10-million US shortfall and "begging" for money around the world.
"It's always difficult to get [to] the Olympics, the games," he said. "And now with some problems on our side, 50-50 is very positive. I would be more 60 per cent that they are not coming."
Negotiations and brinkmanship over finances are common in the lead-up to Olympic hockey tournaments. For the 2014 tournament in Sochi, Russia, the NHL's participation was assured only in July 2013, seven months before the games. But the IOC's refusal to cover player insurance adds an additional dimension for 2018.
While the IOC gives the IIHF around $40 million of revenue each Olympics, Fasel insists that money is earmarked for developing hockey and wants national Olympic committees and hockey federations to plug the gap.
The IOC pulled its extra subsidy because its leaders are "a bit scared that other (sports) federations will come and also ask for some compensation for travelling and insurance," said Fasel, who is also an IOC member and serves on its rule-making executive board.
"I think my idea is to work closer together with the national Olympic committees, as they have normally to pay transportation and insurance for the athletes when they come to the games, so I can imagine that some of the NOCs are also ready to spend some money there, so we have to go around and do some begging," he said.
Fasel said the end of this year is the deadline to reach a deal because of the NHL's need to draw up a calendar for the Olympic season.
"If you don't have the best, [the Olympics] will be a different competition for sure," he said, but warned: "At the end somebody has to pay. That's the question. On my side I will do everything possible to make it happen."
Fasel also dismissed the suggestion that the NHL's revived World Cup of Hockey could offer some players less incentive to demand to be allowed to play at the Olympics.
"There is nothing like the Olympics," he said. "I think for an athlete to win the gold medal is so different from winning the Stanley Cup. You can win the Stanley Cup every year."
New hockey frontier
In Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022, the Winter Olympics move to Asia and away from the North American and European nations that have historically been the bedrock of hockey.
South Korea, which has built a team mixing import players with locals, plays in the second level of the IIHF's world championship and hopes not to be a walkover in 2018. China, however, is far less competitive.
After losses to Iceland and Spain last month, China will be in the fifth tier for next year and in 2022 could become the first Winter Olympic host not to enter a hockey team — a situation which worries the IIHF, given China's potential to become a huge market for the sport.
"One thing they do not like is to lose the face, so they cannot do that," Fasel said. "I hope and I think they will have a Chinese player, Chinese team in Beijing in 2022. We cannot put them on the ice and they will be beaten 15, 20 nothing. We cannot do that."
Things are looking up for China, with increased government interest and the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League due to open a team there this year, but Fasel said the NHL is key to unlocking potentially vast commercial rewards in China.
"A North American brand in China has a very special taste. We can see that with the NBA," he said. "I think what we need is to have a Chinese NHL player, like Yao Ming with basketball."