By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The National Hockey League will not take part in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, saying on Monday that it would finalise its 2017-18 season schedule without a Winter Games break. It declared negotiations "officially closed".
The NHL statement brings an end to years of tense bargaining between the International Olympic Committee, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the NHL over the league's continuing participation in the Winter Games.
Unhappy about having to shut down operations for almost three weeks in the middle of their regular season, the NHL had been seeking major concessions from the IOC, including recognition comparable to that of an Olympic Top Sponsor, for taking part in the South Korea games.
The NHL had participated in every Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.
The decision will impact almost every major hockey playing nation with Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States and Canadian teams almost made up of entirely of NHL players.
Countries will now have to go to a Plan B to ice a team, pulling in players from junior and minor leagues.
Several NHL players, however, having indicated that they will participate in the Pyeongchang Games no matter what the league rules
The NHL absence will also be a blow to the Olympics. With NHL players the Olympic hockey tournament was one of the Winter Games premier events pulling in top ratings, particularly in Canada and the United States.
NO MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE
"A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized," the NHL said in a statement. "Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018.
"And the NHLPA [NHL Players Association] has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs.
"As a result, and in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalising our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games.
"We now consider the matter officially closed."
CONCERN OVER COSTS
NHL participation in the Olympics had appeared in danger after the IOC said it would no longer cover the cost of players insurance and transportation as it had done in previous Olympics.
Last week the IIHF said it had agreed to cover those expenses, estimated at $20 million, but the NHL was unmoved.
For handing over a talent pool with contracts valued at $3.5 billion, the NHL was seeking something akin to IOC Top Sponsor status which would allow the league to market the Winter Games on its platforms.
The NHL decision effectively ends any possibility of the league playing in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The IOC had dangled the 2022 Winter Games and a gateway into the China market in front of NHL officials as the big prize.
"The IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018," the NHL said.
Last week, however, the NHL showed it was prepared to enter the Chinese marketplace with or without the IOC, announcing the league would stage games next season in Beijing and Shanghai.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Augusta, Georgia, editing by Gene Cherry)