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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman casts doubt on Olympic participation beyond 2010

NHL Commissioner Gary. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes.

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NHL Commissioner Gary. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes.

Gary Bettman likes the Olympic hockey tournament but the NHL commissioner isn't sure if it's worth halting the season when the Games are held outside of North America.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press at the start of the NHL's 92nd season, Bettman spoke at length about his views on having the world's top pro players compete at the Olympics.

"The benefits of going to the Olympics when you're in Salt Lake City or Vancouver, to name two cities, are way different than if you're in Japan, Italy or Russia," said Bettman.

The commissioner was a key figure in getting NHL players involved with the Games starting in 1998. However, the league's participation isn't guaranteed to continue beyond the Vancouver Olympics in February.

Some NHL owners question the value in shutting down the season for two weeks at a relatively quiet time on the sports calendar and just when the playoff races are heating up. There are also competition issues because some teams will have as many as 10 players go to the Games while others might not send any.

Those complaints will be magnified as the Olympics head to Sochi, Russia in 2014. Bettman thinks the league would get less value from having its players competing there because games will be televised outside of prime time in North America - likely betwen 4 a.m. and 2 p.m. Eastern.

"I'm not sure that that type of exposure warrants or overcomes the difficulties," said Bettman.

Interestingly, it's a problem the league anticipated before it had ever sent players to the Games.

When Bettman first entered into discussions with the International Olympic Committee, he inquired about having hockey moved to the Summer Games - which are typically held before NHL training camps even open. Then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch quickly dismissed his proposal.

"I don't think I finished the sentence before he said no," said Bettman. "The Winter Olympics are too dependant on hockey in terms of attention (and) ticket sales. We are from that standpoint perhaps their most important event."

It's pretty clear that the Olympic tournament is a priority for the overwhelming majority of players.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have both said that they'll play for Russia on home soil in 2014 no matter what the NHL decides. While the commissioner has taken note of those comments, he's not concerned about a player revolt in a few years time.

"I'm not drawing any hard lines in the sand right now - I don't think it would be appropriate and frankly it's not necessary," said Bettman. "We're going to Vancouver and we're excited to be going to Vancouver."

"We think it's going to be great and beyond that, we'll figure it out when the time is right."

Another thing the commissioner would like to see happen in time is Wayne Gretzky's return to the NHL.

The Great One stepped down as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes during training camp in part because it didn't appear he had a future with the team in either of the bids being considered in bankruptcy court. Even though one of those offers was made by the league, Bettman expressed hope that Gretzky would resurface somewhere else.

"I know this has been a very difficult, painful and frustrating process for Wayne," he said. "And I'm sorry he had to get caught up in what others created. But I respect his decision and I'm hoping once everything's sorted out, he'll be back."

As the Coyotes case dragged on through the summer, it made headlines that didn't exactly paint the league in a positive light.

However, Bettman isn't concerned that the case has harmed any momentum created by a fantastic playoffs because it received most of its attention in just two places - Ontario and Phoenix.

"I think the momentum is there because what really matters is the game on the ice," said Bettman. "The game's in the best shape perhaps it's ever been in, we've got more young players than ever before, we're coming off four years of record attendance - so the game has momentum. "

"The game is growing."

Among the other issues Bettman touched on:

-On the unrest at the NHL Players' Association: "I would prefer to have a stable union who could work with us and partner to help grow the game and the business of the game."

-On holding regular season games in Europe: "These games are logistically difficult and expensive. At this stage we're doing this more as an investment in our fanbase over there."

-On a modest increase in the salary cap during a recession: "I never bought into this notion that we were going to be down 20 per cent or what have you."

When Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup in June, many assumed that was something the league office would be excited about. Crosby, after all, has been prominent in the NHL's marketing since entering the league after the lockout.

The commissioner flatly dismissed that notion.

"We don't care who wins," said Bettman. "That's the beauty of it all. It's about how exciting the games are, how exciting the playoff series are, how well are great players are playing. That is what it's all about."

"They're all our teams, they're all our players. We want them all to do well so that our fans are excited by what's taking place on the ice."

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