Hockey

Tim Wharnsby - Tuesday Feb. 18, 2014 02:45 ET

IIHF president 'guarantees' women's hockey will stay in Olympics

Rene Fasel addresses lack of competitive balance

Canada celebrates its win over Switzerland in women's hockey
Canada seeks its fourth straight gold in women's hockey at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The idea of keeping women’s hockey in the Olympics received a shot in the arm from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and IIHF president Rene Fasel on Tuesday in Sochi.

Four years ago at the Vancouver Games, outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge put women’s hockey on notice, saying it was in danger of being dropped from the Olympics because of the lack of competition for Canada and the United States.

During a joint press conference featuring Bettman, Fasel and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, Bettman remarked: “On behalf of hockey, we would be distressed.”

To which Fasel cut off the NHL commissioner and said, "That will never happen. I can guarantee that will never happen."

One of the problems with the women’s game worldwide is a lack of available competition for European players between Olympic Games. A development that would help the cause would be if the NHL could throw its weight behind a women’s league like the NBA does with the WNBA.

Bettman confessed it’s something his league has looked at. A few years ago he hired former professional basketball player Val Ackerman, who later became the first woman president of USA Basketball, as a consultant to investigate whether it made business sense to start a women’s league. The conclusion was the timing was not yet right.

“But we continue to look at it,” Bettman said. “It’s something that needs more work, but we think it requires further attention.”

When the United States hammered Sweden 6-1 in the semifinals on Monday, there was immediate talk that this would further damage the women’s game at the Olympics. Canada and the U.S. will meet in the final for a fifth consecutive time on Thursday.

No discussion yet on NHL's participation

As predictable as the U.S. and Canada clashing in the women’s gold-medal game were questions to Fehr, Fasel and Bettman about whether or not the NHL plans to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman continued to throw his support behind the NHL’s participation in the Olympics when asked about it in a press conference last week. But, as expected, Bettman said this will be something addressed down the road.

“The primary building blocks are logistics of travel, to and from the Olympics,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said afterwards. “It was a big challenge coming to Sochi and it certainly would be a big challenge if we were to go to South Korea. Player insurance is always a factor with the magnitude and length of player contracts these days, an incredible number of assets at risk.

“So those were two of the most fundamental things we talked about.”

Daly added that the NHL’s participation this time was helped by the fact that NHL broadcasters CBC and NBC also were Olympic rights holders. But the rights holders have yet to be determined for 2018.

“So we haven’t really given any serious consideration to South Korea at all,” Daly said.

The players will have a big say on this issue. Fehr promised a full and thorough investigation as to whether continued Olympic participation is what the players want. The NHL players’ volition to compete in the Olympics has been the main driving force behind their participation in the Winter Games.

World Cup closer to return

Fehr hinted that the two sides are closer to announcing details on a World Cup of Hockey. There hasn’t been one played since 2004 and the speculation continues to be the next World Cup could happen as soon as 2016.

There was the usual playfulness between Bettman and Fasel. At one point Fasel said there is nothing like seeing the smile of a hockey player when he wins a gold medal. To which Bettman was quick to reply, “Except winning the Stanley Cup.”

Finally, Daly was asked about expansion. There was a recent newspaper story in Seattle that said the NHL has targeted the city for an expansion team.

“I think whenever I’m asked that question, I make the same comments,” he said. “The Pacific Northwest, we think is a good hockey area. I think the Vancouver Canucks have done extraordinarily well in developing that area as a good hockey market. Doesn’t mean we’re going to expand there, doesn’t mean we’ve made any decisions in that regard.

“I said the same thing about Quebec City. I also believe it’s a very good hockey market with a very strong and passionate fan base. So there’s nothing more I can say on expansion than we did [at the NHL Board of Governors meetings] in Pebble Beach, which is at some point in time it might be an appropriate consideration for us to bring to the board. But we haven’t reached that yet.”

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