There is widespread optimism throughout the hockey world that NHL players will return to the Olympics a year from now, when the Winter Games are held for the first time in Russia, in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
Assuming that the league and its players are able to resolve outstanding issues with the International Olympic Committee and do agree to take part in the Sochi Games, it will be just one part of an evolving international landscape for the league.
NHL and NHL Players' Association officials are scheduled to meet with IOC officials and top personnel from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in mid-February -- as early as next week -- to try to resolve issues the league and the players have with the logistics surrounding the NHL's participation in the Sochi tournament and Olympic tournaments moving forward.
Multiple sources throughout the hockey world believe strongly that those issues will be addressed by the IOC and that, perhaps as early as the end of the month, the league's participation in a fifth straight Olympics will be assured. But a final decision must include the approval of the board of governors.
Among the issues the league and the players have complained about in the past are access to tickets and event sites by league and union staff.
There is also the larger issue of how the league and its players are treated by the IOC. The NHL and its players are not paid for participating in the tournament, but the league would like access to images and highlights from the games so it can better market and promote the NHL. The IOC has very strict rules regarding usage of anything connected to the Olympics, including even the Olympic logo.
The NHL would like to be treated more like a rights holder or a top sponsor, with the access and advantages granted by such status.
One of the reasons it's expected the IOC will be willing to address these concerns is that the men's hockey tournament is a huge revenue generator. Also, the North American broadcast rights holder is NBC, which is also the NHL's main broadcast partner in the United States. It would be almost unthinkable from the IOC and the NBC perspective for the NHL not to take part in the Sochi Games.
Even if the NHL's and the players' requests are met, there remains resistance to taking part in the Olympics from within the ownership group because there is no real way to quantify whether closing down the league every four years benefits the league. In Sochi, which is nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, the time difference means no games will be played anywhere near prime time in North America. The league is looking at shutting down from Feb. 10 until Feb. 25 or 26. It's expected that only a handful of NHL games would be played on Feb. 9 to allow for travel to Sochi on Feb. 9 or 10, with the Olympic tournament set to begin on Feb. 12 or 13.
In spite of the reservations on the part of some owners, it's expected the board of governors will unanimously approve the decision to go to Sochi if league officials recommend -- which is expected -- that the NHL take part in the Winter Games.
Should the NHL commit to Sochi, it does not necessarily guarantee the NHL will commit long term to the Olympics. In other words, it won't agree to a package deal that would guarantee participation at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games in South Korea in 2018 until it is assured that whatever changes are agreed to for Sochi work out to the satisfaction of the league and the players.
Look for the league and the players' association to approach these meetings with a united front. Although the topic of the Olympics came up only once during collective bargaining negotiations, both sides appear to be on the same page vis-a-vis getting better treatment from the IOC at the Olympics. The two sides will no doubt have their issues in determining how long the actual NHL break should be: The players' association historically wants a longer break to make life easier for those participating, and the owners look to close their doors for the shortest time possible.
The day after the main IOC, IIHF, NHL, NHLPA meeting in mid-February, the league and players are scheduled to meet with IIHF officials to try to come to a consensus on what is known as the international calendar that will map out hockey competitions outside the Olympics.
It's believed the NHL will discuss plans to revive the World Cup of Hockey on a four-year cycle, likely starting in 2016.
Although some international hockey officials favor a midseason tournament, a la the Olympics, that idea would get strong resistance from NHL owners. Instead, look for the World Cup of Hockey to occupy its traditional -- if that term can be used for a tournament that evolved from the legendary Canada Cup events but has been held since then only in 1996 and 2004 -- spot in late summer just before the start of NHL training camps.
Rescuing the aimless property that is the World Cup of Hockey is important to the league and the players as it generates significant revenue and allows for a true best-on-best tournament outside the Olympic tournament, which comes with significantly more institutional bureaucracy.
Among the other issues that is expected to get an airing this month is the future of the annual world championship, which almost always is held in Europe around the time the second round of the NHL playoffs begins. Discussion about whether to cancel the tournament altogether in Olympic years might come up, although it's believed the IIHF will offer push-back on that option, given that the world championship generates significant revenue and is popular among European hockey fans.
A move could be made to alter the tournament to make it for younger players in Olympic years or another variation to the normal pattern the tournament follows.
Although it's not technically part of the international calendar, the NHL also is debating what to do with its Premier Games program that began in the fall of 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks playing the Los Angeles Kings in their regular-season opener in London. The program evolved to include teams scattered all over Europe to start the regular season but was canceled this past fall with the prospect of a lockout looming.
The league believes it's an important tool for promoting the game in Europe and connecting with European fans. But there is some discussion about whether the NHL's presence should continue at the start of the regular season or should be altered to see regular-season games held in Europe midseason. It is harder to generate income through exhibition games that way, but those are issues currently being debated. If the NHL is going to return to Europe this fall, it will have to move quickly to generate sponsorship and secure buildings.