The NHL is sticking to its plan to allow its players to compete in the Beijing Olympics.
Speaking at the conclusion of the board of governors meeting in Florida, Commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday the league will continue to honor its commitment to giving players the opportunity to compete for gold in February.
But there is still no clarity on what happens if an NHL player tests positive for COVID-19 in China, including the length of a potential quarantine and if the individual will be allowed to leave the country during that period. Any significant disruption to the NHL schedule also could alter the league's thinking on the Olympics.
“We made a promise,” Bettman said during a news conference at the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa following the board’s first face-to-face meeting since 2019. “It’s not like we haven’t expressed our concerns. But in the final analysis, subject to some caveats, with all of the issues that are being raised ... the players, for the most part, seem to continue to be saying they want to go.”
The league made that promise to the NHL Players’ Association when the extension to the current collective bargaining agreement was signed ahead of pandemic-delayed 2019-20 season. The two parties then inked a deal with the International Ice Hockey Federation on the Games in September.
“Our concerns have only been magnified,” Bettman said of going to Beijing. “But ultimately, we made a commitment.”
Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner became the first player to opt out earlier this week.
“We have concerns, and we’ve expressed those to the players’ association,” Bettman said. “We’ve seen that a number of players are now expressing concerns. We’ll have to see how this ultimately plays out.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league could pull out of the Olympics at any point because of COVID-19, but Jan. 10 is the deadline to nix the plan without financial penalty.
The NHL went to every Olympics from 1998 through 2014 before declining to send its players to the 2018 Games in South Korea.
Owners have always been lukewarm on the showcase even under perfect health and safety conditions for a number of reasons, including the disruption to the league calendar.
“I don’t think that this is going to be the ideal Olympic experience in terms of the lockdowns in the Olympic Village and everything else that’s going on,” Bettman said. “But again, we made a promise to the players, and I’m going, to the best of our ability, adhere to it, understanding that there may be consequences that nobody’s gonna like.
“But we made a promise.”
The other big topic Friday was the evolving Arizona Coyotes situation.
The City of Glendale informed the team this week it intends to lock the club out of Gila River Arena by Dec. 20 if all outstanding debts to the city and the building’s management company were not paid.
Glendale city manager Kevin Phelps sent a letter Wednesday informing the Coyotes they owed $1.3 million in taxes, including $250,000 to the city.
“There’s no issue with the Arizona Coyotes,” Bettman said. “It’s clear that the City of Glendale has either an agenda or an edge in the way they’re dealing with the Coyotes. I think there was a miscommunication.
“All of the outstanding obligations had been brought current.”
When the Coyotes first moved from Winnipeg in 1996, the team shared America West Arena with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns in downtown Phoenix. The team moved to Gila River Arena in 2003, but faced near-constant relocation rumors as ownership changed hands.
The team has submitted a bid for a tract of land in Tempe — another Phoenix suburb — in what could be its first step in landing a permanent home. Bettman, meanwhile, said there are venue options for the Coyotes next season if their current home remains off the table.
“The Coyotes aren’t going anywhere. ... They’re going somewhere else other than Glendale, but they’re not leaving the greater Phoenix area,” Bettman said.
Bettman said the salary cap, which has remained stagnant at $81.5 million during the pandemic, will rise by $1 million next season. He added league revenues are expected to hit $5.2 billion in 2021-22 — a return to pre-pandemic levels.
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