DENVER (Reuters) - International ice hockey chief Rene Fasel will work day and night to make sure NHL players take part in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he said on Thursday.
Fasel could be looking at some long days ahead after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave a less than enthusiastic outlook on the league’s players continuing to participate in the Games.
Speaking at the SportAccord convention, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) president Fasel and Bettman had a frank and sometimes heated exchange that underscored the difficult negotiations ahead for the NHL to remain part of the Olympics.
“It can be a challenge or a nightmare (bringing the NHL, IIHF, NHLPA players’ association and IOC together) and I take it as a challenge, a fantastic challenge and I will work day and night to have them (NHL players) in Sochi,” said Fasel.
The 2014 Games will be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi following next year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
But Bettman said: ”It’s not so easy to simply say ‘Let’s go to the Olympics’. We shut down our season for two weeks to 17 days and there is a momentum to our season that is lost...it all comes to a screeching halt and we go off to the Olympics.
”No other league stops to go do this. In fact, baseball doesn’t do it and it’s no longer an Olympic sport.
”This is hard, it’s not always a good experience and the benefits we’ve sometimes seen were not always worth what we’ve had to sacrifice.
“I don’t think we get enough credit and I don’t think the IOC (International Olympic Committee) tends to recognize how difficult it is.”
The NHL is committed to freeing players to compete in the Vancouver Games next year but future NHL participation will have to be negotiated into the new collective bargaining agreement.
While players are keen to remain part of the Winter Olympics NHL owners, managers and coaches are much less eager and appear ready to end the experiment that began at the 1998 Nagano Games, when professionals were first allowed to take part.
Bettman said the NHL has invested a lot in the Olympics but is seeing diminishing returns, particularly when the Games are staged outside the U.S. and Canadian time zones.
The commissioner also scolded the IOC for not allowing the NHL to at least promote its participation in the Games.
Fasel accused Bettman of being more concerned about making money than growing the sport and said that was the main reason the NHL was reconsidering its Olympic involvement.
“You play over 4,000 games over the four years and you play 31 games at the Olympics,” said Fasel.
”During the season you shut down the league, you play the same number of regular season game. That means you don’t have a loss of income for that season.
“Gary is looking at ‘What can I have as an income, how can I promote my brand?'”
The attack promoted an immediate response from Bettman.
“It has nothing to do with money, it has to do with the competitiveness of our season,” he said.
”If you have a team that has a dozen players participating in the Olympics, when we come back that team will be a little more banged up than a team that maybe sent one or two players to the Olympics.
”It’s more about the integrity of our season.
“So for you to say it’s only 31 games shows a little bit of disrespect for what the NHL product is and to our fans.”
(Editing by Ken Ferris)
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