NHL freezes out 2018 Olympics, won’t take time off to give players chance to participate

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media following a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on March 17. The NHL announced Monday that it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, saying it sees no tangible benefit in halting its season for three weeks next February despite clear signs from the world's best players that they want to go. (AP photo)

The NHL announced Monday that it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, refusing for the first time in 20 years to halt its season for three weeks so its stars can chase gold for their home countries.

From Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews to Connor McDavid and Henrik Lundqvist, the world’s best players called playing in the Olympics important. The league decided otherwise.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly informed the NHL Players’ Association that the matter was “officially closed” after weeks of speculation.

The NHLPA said in a statement that players are “extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision.”

The NHL had allowed its players to participate in the past five Olympics dating to 1998, giving the Winter Games pro-level star power akin to the NBA players who participate in the Summer Olympics.

The league said no meaningful dialogue had emerged in talks with the NHLPA, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation.

Even after the IIHF had agreed to pay for players’ travel and insurance costs when the IOC refused, the NHL had been looking for more concessions that were believed to include marketing opportunities tied to the games.

The IOC said today it “feels very sorry for the athletes,” but could not give the NHL special favors.

“The IOC, which distributes 90 percent of its revenue for the development of sport in the world, obviously cannot treat a national commercial league better than not-for-profit international sports federations which are developing sport globally,” the Olympic body said in a statement.

The league wanted the matter resolved before the playoffs begin April 12.

“The league’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself,” the NHLPA said.

“NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone.”

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who led Canada to consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, said, “I’m just going to tell you I’m disappointed.”

Players immediately blasted the decision. Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who played in Sochi under Babcock, called it “very disappointing” and said it was short-changing younger players who hadn’t got to experience it before.

“Disappointing news, (the NHL) won’t be part of the Olympics 2018. A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted,” tweeted Lundqvist, the New York Rangers goaltender who won the 2006 Olympic gold medal with Sweden.

“But most of all, disappointing for all the players that can’t be part of the most special adventure in sports.”

Former NHL forward Brandon Prust, who’s now playing in Germany, tweeted: “Way to ruin the sport of hockey even more Gary #Olympics.”