The 2018 Winter Olympics begin in just over a year, but NBC still has no idea what kind of men’s hockey tournament it will be showing from Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It’s an unknown at this point,” NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said at a news conference in Manhattan on Thursday.
That is because the IOC, International Ice Hockey Federation and NHL have yet to come to an agreement that would allow NHL players to participate, as they have done since 1998.
“I’ve spoken with both the IOC and the NHL,” Lazarus said, “and they had what was described to me by both parties as a cordial discussion (in New York last week) — without any negotiation, but leaving the door open to try to conclude a deal.
“What I do know is that the players very much want to be there. The owners have reservations. The IOC and International Ice Hockey Federation very much would like them to be there. The rest is out of our control.”
Four years ago, when NBC held a similar one-year-out event in advance of the Sochi Games, the NHL and IOC had not yet reached an agreement, but the tone seemed positive. They agreed to terms in July.
Asked if it is fair to say there is less optimism now than there was four years earlier, Lazarus said, “I think that’s accurate, and I think a lot of that is based on geography, how important hockey was and is to Russia. So many players in the NHL are Russian. Korea doesn’t have the same tradition around hockey that Russia does.”
There is no getting around the fact that an absence of NHL players will damage the appeal of the men’s tournament next February, but Lazarus tried to put a brave face on that possibility.
“I think it remains to be seen what type of players still go,” he said. “There’s still the international leagues, which have a lot of former NHL players. There’s certainly quality players from around the world. I believe whatever happens it will be a quality hockey tournament.
“We would like the NHL to be there. We’ve made that clear to them. Hockey for the most part won’t be on NBC (but rather on cable channels), and hockey for the most part, given the time difference, will be late at night and early morning. So it’s not going to affect the peak periods.
“But we think it’s better for the Olympics and we think it’s important for the growth of hockey around the world for the best in the world to be playing.”
Among the owners’ concerns are financial terms, the disruption of the NHL season and the potential for injury. In 2014, the Islanders lost John Tavares for the rest of the season because of a knee injury he suffered in Sochi.
“Based on Sochi, I can sure see the owners’ argument,” Doc Emrick, NBC’s lead hockey play-by-play man, said on Thursday. “They’re putting their assets out there and they’re taking a tremendous risk . . . It is a negotiation. I’m sure if the owners get what they want, they will probably relent. But right now I can sure understand their position.”