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NHL returning to Olympics ‘hard to envision,’ says Gary Bettman

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Skipping the 2018 Pyeongchang Games may not be a one-time thing.

Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Yahoo

The NHL’s days of participating in the Winter Olympics could be over for good. Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a recent interview with SVT Sport in Sweden that he wouldn’t rule out sending players to future Games, but finds it “hard to envision a scenario where it makes sense.”

The league is already skipping the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang after negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation fell apart earlier this year. There had been speculation that this would be a one-time thing, with the 2022 Olympics in Beijing presenting a better marketing opportunity.

However, Bettman told SVT Sport that the league may skip all Olympics that aren’t played in North America. He didn’t rule anything out entirely, which makes sense given we’re over four years from the 2022 Games, but hockey fans should prepare for a world where the NHL and the Olympics no longer have anything to do with each other.

“I never say never, but I find it hard to envision a scenario where it makes sense unless, possibly, the Winter Games are back in North America where the time frame, and the attention, and the logistics — travel — are a lot different,” Bettman said.

The NHL had participated in the Olympics from 1998 to 2014 by inserting a lengthy break into its season where top players would go represent their countries. Last year, the league held its first World Cup of Hockey, an international tournament where the profits would primarily go to the league instead of outside partners like the IOC.

Money was at the center of the issues between the NHL and the Olympics, as the league wanted to be treated as an official sponsor similar to Coca-Cola, Samsung, or Visa, but the IOC refused. So the NHL decided to pull its involvement when an agreement couldn’t be made. Now that could become the new status quo if it wants to push the World Cup instead.

We’re still years from the NHL making firm decisions here, and a lot can change before that time comes. This will surely a contentious issue between the owners and players during the next collective bargaining negotiations. It’s also fair to wonder how the NHL’s relationship with NBC, which is the exclusive rights holder of the Olympics, could change things. The current TV deal between the two sides expires following the 2020-21 season.

But these comments from Bettman show some evolution in the NHL’s thinking, and signal that the world’s best league might not send its players to the world’s biggest international sporting event again. That could be a big development for the future of hockey.