PITTSBURGH — The NHL is heading to Asia next season. Just not the Olympics.
Commissioner Gary Bettman emphatically reasserted the league will not take a break next February to participate in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea next February. The league previously announced it would skip going to Pyeongchang earlier this spring, a point Bettman bluntly reiterated on Monday just hours before Pittsburgh and Nashville met in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“(We’ve seen) a number of comments from the (International Ice Hockey Federation) and player reps suggesting it was still an open issue, it is not and has not been,” Bettman said.
IIHF President Rene Fasel said the governing body was touching base with the NHL Players’ Association two or three times per week, hoping to work out a solution. Lee Hee-beom, head of the Pyeongchang Organizing committee, said in London earlier this month he was “ready to cooperate” with the NHL to make sure the best players in the world could participate in the games as they’ve done in every Winter Olympics since 1998.
While saying the NHL is not “anti-Olympics,” Bettman said league owners are no longer interested in having their arenas go dark in the middle of winter while some of their best employees traveled to the other side of the world, particularly if the International Olympic Committee wants no part of picking up the insurance cost.
Bettman said the league “never negotiated” with the IOC, saying the league didn’t have “the appetite to continue participation.”
Some players, like Washington star Alexander Ovechkin, have indicated they will play for their home countries regardless of whether the league takes a break or not. Bettman doesn’t see that happening.
“We have an expectation that none of our players are going,” he said. “But I don’t want to get into the gymnastics involved in what that means. There’s no reason to pick that fight right now.”
The league is hardly abandoning efforts to expand its global footprint. The league will host events on three continents during the 2017-18 season. The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will play a pair of exhibition games in China in September. Ottawa and Colorado will meet in a regular season game in Stockholm in November and Tampa will host to the All-Star game for the second time next January.
The Canucks and Kings will play in Shanghai on Sept. 21 and in Beijing on Sept. 23. Beijing will welcome the world for the 2022 Winter Olympics, yet Bettman said the topic of NHL players tagging along never came up.
“I think the focus is more about long-term developing the sport, not what happens for two weeks in 2022,” Bettman said.
Other takeaways from Bettman’s annual state-of-the-league address:
The expansion Las Vegas Knights will have 72 hours — and not the initially announced 48 — to review each team’s protected list. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league is “very pleased” with the city’s response to the arrival of its first major professional sports franchise.
There are no plans to expand what is covered by the newly introduced coach’s challenge but Bettman said the league is thinking about using a clock to limit the window on when coaches can alert officials they want a play reviewed.
The league continued to back the Arizona Coyotes‘ ownership in its quest to find a permanent home. The team is entering the final year of its lease with Gila River Arena in Glendale, a significant haul for fans from Phoenix.
“We have a lot of patience for the Coyotes,” Daly said. “We’re confident there are a lot of good arena opportunities available to them there. Our ownership is focused on cultivating one of those opportunities. There’s every sense that they’ll be successful in doing that. So we support their efforts.”
CATCH ME OUTSIDE
The NHL will play at three outdoor games during the 2017-18 season. Ottawa will face Montreal in the NHL 100 Classic at Landsdowne Park in Ottawa on Dec. 16 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first NHL game played on Dec. 19, 1917. The Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers will play at Citi Field — the home of baseball’s New York Mets — in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and Washington and Toronto will play a Stadium Series Game on March 3 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.