NHL 'nowhere near' 2022 Olympic return, eyes 2020 China games

Fans in Beijing cheer the NHL's Vancouver Canucks at the 2017 NHL China Games, with the NHL saying they hope to return for pre-season games in 2020 and possibly have NHL talent in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics (AFP Photo/NICOLAS ASFOURI) (AFP/File)

New York (AFP) - The National Hockey League is "nowhere near a resolution" on whether or not players will compete in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics but the league is looking at pre-season games in China next year, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

The NHL opted not to shut down in 2018 and allow players on its teams to compete at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, but Daly says he knows how important the Winter Games will be for China.

"There's no doubt the Olympics are a critical element of the growth of ice hockey in China and the exposure to the people of China for the game of hockey," Daly said. "Whether that complicates our decision -- every Olympic decision is a different one."

Daly said the NHL hopes to announce 2020 pre-season fixtures soon after not sending clubs to China this year following China pre-season contests in 2017 and 2018.

"We hope to be in a position to announce the games earlier than we have in prior years, coming up in the next couple of months," Daly said. "Hopefully we continue to develop and deepen our ties in China, and that means more games, more players, more teams, more league activities in China."

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, the Russian superstar who led the NHL in goals for the eighth time last season, visited China this month as an NHL ambassador to promote the sport.

"I don't see us playing regular-season games next year in China, but we'll continue with bringing teams over there and playing pre-season games for a while and look for strategic ways to continue to grow hockey's presence in China," Daly said.

"I think the development of the sport is most critical at this point, less about the NHL and more about the game of hockey and developing the game of hockey in China."

Daly said early talks with the players union have been positive as each sides faces a decision next month about triggering an early termination of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement signed in 2013.

The NHL can terminate until September 1. If the league doesn't, the NHL Players Association has until September 15 to terminate. An early end either way would then come in September 2020. If neither exercises the option, the deal would run until September 2022.

"I think there's general agreement kind of directionally, where we should be going," Daly told Canada's SportsNet. "Both sides have been open that the agreement is not a perfect agreement and could be improved, but nobody's holding out for a home run."

Daly told SportsNet he was "cautiously optimistic" that talks would lead to a 2021 World Cup of Hockey, but that would require early termination and a new deal for a World Cup, which reportedly would replace the 2021 NHL All-Star Game rather than be played before the season, as was the case the last time the event was staged.