The NHL and NHL Players Association made progress yesterday toward an agreement that would allow players to participate in the 2002 Winter Olympics, sources said.
The meeting, which took place in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during a conference of the International Ice Hockey Federation, was a strong step toward resolution considering a few days ago the NHL and NHLPA did not even plan on attending the meeting.
The sides differed on several key issues, such as the length of time the NHL players would have to devote to the Olympics and the dispersal of money generated by NHL players' participation. But concessions were made by both sides Sunday, and the give-and-take continued through Tuesday's meeting.
The IIHF will now review the suggestions and work with the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee to finalize details.
"It was a very good, productive discussion," said an NHL source. "There are still some issues to be resolved, but expect the IIHF to make an announcement before the end of the year. I think it would be fair to say something near an agreement in principle [to participate] was reached, but there are still a few issues that have to be worked out."
Representatives of the NHL and NHLPA declined to comment on the meeting.
Once the IIHF discusses the matter with the respective committees and brings back a proposal to the NHL, the league's board of governors would have to vote on the issue before participation would be official. The league still could recommend rejection of a package not to their liking.
Originally, the NHLPA presented the NHL with a list of demands that would have to be met before its players would agree to participate in the Olympics. The NHLPA backed off several of those demands early this week. The NHLPA agreed to have players participate in the 1998 Winter Olympics only after the league agreed to extend the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in 2004.
NHL sources said TV exposure is not an issue ("We're very comfortable with any TV agreement," said one source) and the IIHF is earnestly seeking NHL participation.
By all accounts, the Nagano Olympics did not generate as much attention as hoped for the sport. The games were played well after midnight and U.S. television exposure in prime time was minimal. Neither the United States nor Canada won a medal in the tournament, which also did not help ratings. With the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and hockey games likely to be played in prime time, it is believed that attention to the sport will increase.
There were concerns on all sides about how continued Olympic participation might affect future World Cup tournaments--traditionally held every four years in September or October--but those do not appear to be major hurdles at this point.