By Chris Lines, The Associated Press
BANGKOK – A senior Canadian hockey official believes NHL players will return to the Winter Olympics, and is urging an early decision this time.
The participation of NHL players in the Olympics is contentious because of disruption to the league season and teams’ concerns over injury risks.
Bob Nicholson, a vice-president of the International Ice Hockey Federation and former Hockey Canada chief, was asked Friday about the prospect of NHL players competing at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“The players want to go but it’s very difficult for the NHL,” Nicholson said. “If everyone agrees to take some and leave some on the table, I think we’ll see NHL players in the future.”
“You never like it to go down to the wire, because everyone loses,” he added. “The sooner you decide to go, the better it will be for them and for all of the countries participating.”
NHL players have participated in every Winter Olympics since 1998. Doubts have been raised about the league’s participation in Pyeongchang because of, among other things, a lack of hockey tradition in South Korea.
Nicholson was speaking at the Association of National Olympic Committees inaugural awards. Canada’s hockey teams won both the men’s and women’s awards for the best team performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Canada beat Sweden for the men’s gold in Sochi, but the final was overshadowed by the suspension of Sweden’s Nicklas Backstrom on the day of the game for a doping offence.
Sweden was angered by the late notice that its star player would be out, and the NHL Players’ Association was unhappy with the way the matter was handled by Olympic officials. The dispute was seen as diminishing the likelihood that NHL players would participate in 2018.
Nicholson, who is also a vice-chairman of the Edmonton Oilers, said the Backstrom case would not be the principal factor in deciding on the Pyeongchang Olympics.
“That was a very unfortunate situation,” Nicholson said. “The National Hockey League takes doping very seriously, so that wouldn’t be an issue of why they’re not going to go. The biggest one was the safety of their players, players getting hurt at the Olympic Games midway through the season.”