Gary Bettman on NHL's Olympic decision, growing the game in China

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media before Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators, Monday, May 29, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH – Any hope that the NHL would reverse its stance on sending players to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang ended on Monday night when the league officially announced that Tampa will host the All-Star Game next February.

Even after the NHL sent out a statement last month declaring that the owners had no interest in shutting down the 2017-18 season for two weeks so players could participate, some still felt there was a sliver of hope that with time, the league, International Ice Hockey Federation, International Olympic Committee and NHL Players’ Association would find a solution to go. But during Commissioner Gary Bettman’s state of the league address Monday ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, he closed the door on participating.

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“Six weeks ago we were very clear and definitive that the teams had no interest in going to the Olympics in Pyeongchang, and I know that there have been a variety of comments either from Rene Fasel of the International Ice Hockey Federation or from representatives from the Players’ Association suggesting that this was still an open issue. It is not and has not been,” Bettman said.

Bettman added that every time he met with representatives from either the IOC or IIHF, he made clear the owners’ disdain for pausing the season in the middle of February.

“We’re not anti-Olympics, we’re anti-disruption to the season,” he said, “and I don’t believe there’s any appetite to continue participation. Having said that, we said listen, if there’s something you want to tell us that might change the equation, that might interest the teams, we’ll listen. We weren’t negotiating. We never negotiate.”

In November, Sportsnet reported that the league had offered Olympic participation to the players in exchange for extending the current collective bargaining agreement by three years through 2025. But according to Bettman, that wasn’t a negotiation either.

“What then ensued in that meeting wasn’t a demand, it wasn’t a proposal — it was a suggestion, it was talking points,” he said. “We said if we’re both going to give up our [CBA] re-openers and we extend by three years, we can accomplish two Olympics, two World Cups, two Ryder Cups, build the international business together the way we hope to and do a whole host of other initiatives, and under the framework of a robust international calendar and labor peace for nine years maybe I’ve got something that will persuade the teams to reconsider their view of the Olympics.”

That idea was rejected by the NHLPA, with executive director Donald Fehr telling the Canadian Press “the players, primarily the executive board, showed no interest in the idea.”

So what about the Beijing Olympics in 2022? So far, the NHL has not been asked to commit by the IOC or IIHF to send players to those Games. Still five years away, there’s no rush for a decision now.

In the meantime, the NHL is getting its foot into the Chinese market by playing two preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai next September, with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings taking part.

When Bettman was over there last month to officially announce the 2017 NHL China Games, he met with the country’s Minister of Sport, who told him the government wants to increase interest in winter sports, including hockey, by 300 million participants over the next five years. The agreement will see the league assist with grassroots efforts in exchange for help growing their business in the country.

Bettman noted that in his meetings with Chinese officials the topic of NHL participation in the 2022 Olympics was not brought up. The government is more focused on growing the game there long-term.

“It’s not about two weeks in 2022,” Bettman said.

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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