Hockey stars could miss 2018 Games as NHL owners fume

Jim SLATER

Washington (AFP) - The world's best ice hockey players may be missing from the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics thanks to a money dispute that has National Hockey League team owners rethinking their usual mid-season shutdown.

Since the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the NHL has halted its campaign so top talent can compete for gold with national teams, producing some of the sport's most electric moments.

But millionaire superstars such as Sidney Crosby, who sparked Canada's 2010 and 2014 Olympic titles plus a 2016 World Cup of Hockey crown, and Russia's Alex Ovechkin, so hungry for gold he has vowed to play in Pyeongchang even if the NHL keeps going, might not be able to skate in South Korea.

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) triggered the impasse by refusing to keep paying for NHL player insurance and travel costs, which added up to about $14 million for the 2014 Sochi Games.

"When the IOC said they didn't think it was worth it, it opened a whole can of worms," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at the NHL All-Star Game last month.

"We said from the outset that if they are not going pay the expenses then we don't even have to think about this."

Many NHL team owners were already unhappy at sending away star players to risk injury while congesting the regular season to fit a full campaign and playoffs into the normal time frame.

"The biggest hurdle is the concern about the disruption to the season, the compressed schedule and a whole host of other things we have to talk about," said Bettman.

IOC president Thomas Bach met with NHL and players union officials last week but left with no promise of playing in Pyeongchang, with a year to go until the start of the Olympics.

- Caught in the middle -

"Of course, we all want to see the best players at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and we know the players feel the same," Bach said after the meeting.

"Therefore, we hope even more that the International Federation and the NHL will reach a solution to make the Olympic dreams of the players come true."

Caught in the middle has been Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), who said Tuesday on the federation's website that his group will pick up costs no longer footed by the IOC.

"We were able to devise a financial framework that will cover these payments without drawing funds away from the IIHF's development programs or those of our (national associations)," Fasel said.

But the NHL still has not agreed to shut down next February, going so far as to devise two schedule plans, one with an Olympic break and one without.

"The Olympic Games... offers a massive and hugely influential platform for our sport," Fasel said. "Such a pre-eminent event... deserves to feature the world's top players competing against each other. So yes I absolutely do feel an obligation to ensure that we continue to have best-on-best."

A Monday conference call with IIHF leaders and teams qualified for Pyeongchang ended with no deadline threat for the NHL on when a decision is needed for Pyeongchang.

"The majority of this group felt that the NHL will likely need to decide during the month of March because of their scheduling needs for next season," Fasel said. "We do not feel at this time it would be constructive to set a hard deadline."

- Exciting history -

While Fasel said Bach wants NHL players in the Olympics, they have discussed "Plan B," using lesser talent with the same rules, schedule and format, rejecting the idea of an under-23 event as Olympic football uses.

"That said, Olympic ice hockey has a wonderful and exciting history that goes further back than just Nagano," Fasel said. "If we do not have the NHL in Pyeongchang, I have zero doubt that the Olympic men's tournament will still be as thrilling and competitive as any we have seen."

Alan Ashley, US 2018 Olympic mission chief, has faith in USA Hockey's backup plan if the NHL says no, likely assembling a team of top collegians such as the group that upset the Soviet Union and won the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

"If we have to go to Plan B, they have already thought about what players would be on their roster," he said. "They have a good idea of where they want to go if there's no NHL."

But Ashley admits a quick answer is needed.

"The sooner we get a good resolution, the better," he said.

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