The NHL and NHL Players' Association are fully engrossed in fleshing out the logistics and details of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but it is hard not to ignore the elephant in the room while they're doing that.
Will NHL players be going to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February 2018 or not?
It's a question that's far from being answered yet.
"We haven't had any discussions about it," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "And I said in Columbus [at the All-Star Game], this decision about the World Cup has no bearing on that decision. We're focused right now on the World Cup. When we get to discussing and evaluating the Olympic opportunity, that decision -- whether or not we go or not go -- will rise and fall on the merits of making that decision."
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr agreed with Bettman's characterization of the Olympic decision not being tied to the return of the World Cup.
"Yes, I think that's a correct statement, that the Olympics have to be evaluated on their own, and you have to get the right kinds of agreements with the IIHF and the IOC," Fehr told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "Assuming you can, it's no secret what the players' position is going to be. But this [World Cup] is something we would do if we had already decided to go to the Olympics or if the Olympics had shut down and you never had them again. It wouldn't matter."
Now, while it is true there haven't been any real Olympic discussions just yet, it should be noted that Fehr went to Switzerland in mid-February -- rather under the radar, I might add -- and met with IOC president Thomas Bach.
I wonder how Bettman felt about that. But let's move on.
The players have always wanted to participate ever since the door opened with the 1998 Nagano Olympics. And it's not just the small percentage of NHLers who get to actually play in the Olympics that continually endorse the idea, but it's also the majority of regular Joe Blow NHLers who love getting the long February break in order to heal their bumps and bruises and take in some sunshine on a paradise island somewhere nice and warm. Let's not kid ourselves about the importance of that factor.
The NHL and its owners? They can barely hide their lack of interest in going to South Korea.
But that NHL-NHLPA showdown on Olympic participation is putting the cart in front of the horse. There are other things to figure out way before it becomes about that.
Bach took over as IOC president in September 2013, so this is his first crack at the NHL Olympic discussion. Sochi had already been ironed out before he came on board as the big boss. As a factual point, Bach has to make a decision with his IOC council on whether or not they are going to extend the same benefits to NHL players as they have since 1998. Unless I missed it, I don't think that's happened yet.
Why this is interesting is that Bach reportedly stated years ago that he didn't think pros (NBA, NHL players) should get benefits that other athletes don't get. Mind you, now that he's IOC president, it wouldn't surprise anyone if he feels differently, given the money involved in having the best hockey in the world featured in the showcase event of the Winter Olympics. Still, I point that out as a matter of interest.
I asked Fehr on Wednesday what would happen if new IOC leadership isn't quite as interested in guaranteeing the same kind of benefits and comforts that NHLers got in past Olympics, particularly in Sochi last year, when players were the happiest they've ever been with the way things worked out.
"At this point, I have no reason to think that the IOC's approach will vary from what we've seen in the past," Fehr said. "But that remains to be seen. We haven’t started the discussions yet."
Either way, there's zero point in the NHL and NHLPA beginning official discussions on Olympic participation until Bach and the IOC council express an official desire to keep the thing going with NHL participation, although again, it would be surprising if they didn't.
Another important official discussion has to take place between Bach and Rene Fasel. Fasel, as IIHF president, is the one who has to get the IOC's commitment on the funding for NHL participation.
The NHL and NHLPA likely won't have any real Olympic discussions until that is all resolved. If Bach and the IOC say no, then the whole thing is dead before it even starts. But if Bach and the IOC green light the funding and the desire to keep the same standard NHLers have had in past Olympics, then the NHL and NHLPA spring into action. Bettman needs to get the go-ahead from his board of governors and then the league and union need to bang out an Olympic agreement, which will likely follow more or less the templates from before. That's if NHL owners vote to go this time ...
In closing, what will also be interesting is the timing of the Olympic decision, regardless of whether it's a yes or a no. Would the NHL and NHLPA want this all decided before the September 2016 World Cup of Hockey? Could the Olympic decision overshadow their own event?
Again, you sense from the NHL that going back to the Olympics isn't a priority at this point. But perhaps that's just what they want conveyed publicly for the IOC to see in order to make sure Bach delivers.
The difference this time around, whatever way it goes, is that the NHL has its own best-on-best event to fall back on for years ago come, and that's no small factor.
But the players still want to go to the Olympics.
As always, it will be ultra-intriguing to see how this plays out.