New NHL Players' Association executive director Marty Walsh said he's focused on getting NHL players back into the Winter Olympics for the 2026 Milano Cortina Games in Italy.
The NHL hasn't participated in the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament since the 2014 Sochi Games.
"My focus is to try and make that happen. I'm working with commissioner Gary Bettman, collectively together with the IIHF, and hopefully we'll be able to come up with an agreement and move forward," Walsh told ESPN on Tuesday. "A lot of players from around the globe want to play for their home country. They want that best-on-best tournament. They want to be part of it."
The NHL participated in five consecutive Olympics starting in 1998. The streak was broken when the NHL opted not to send players to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. That was due to a change in terms with the league's agreement with the IOC and also because "the overwhelming majority of our clubs" were "adamantly opposed" to disrupting the 2017-18 season for the South Korea-hosted Games, according to Bettman.
The 2020 collective bargaining agreement formalized a commitment by the NHL and the NHLPA to participate in both the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. But that participation is "subject to negotiation of terms acceptable to each of the NHL, NHLPA, and IIHF (and/or IOC)."
Despite that agreement, the NHL opted out again from the 2022 Games in Beijing, citing "a profound disruption to the regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN that "we are still working to facilitate participation in the 2026 Milan Olympics."
Walsh, former U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Joe Biden, was formally hired by the players in February to succeed Donald Fehr as executive director. Walsh said he's still learning about the history and dynamics of the NHL and the NHLPA's relationship with the IOC, and what it'll take to play in Milano Cortina.
"We just want to work that out. They can play in the Olympics in 2026. That's something that's really important to a lot of players," he said.
But the players are focused on more than just the Olympics when it comes to international hockey. Walsh said they're also fixated on the next edition of the World Cup of Hockey, which was resurrected as an eight-team, NHL/NHLPA-backed tournament held in Toronto in 2016.
Walsh said the important things for the players are format and regularity.
"We've had some conversations with the league about making sure that if we're going to do a World Cup hockey tournament, it's best-on-best and we do it for a period of a couple different tournaments, so that we're not doing this one-off every 10 years. That we have more consistency moving forward. That still has a ways to go," he said.
Bettman and Walsh met during the spring to discuss the next World Cup. "I think we're off to a great start. We both identify it as a priority," said Bettman.
There were plans to hold the World Cup in February 2024. But the NHL and NHLPA said in a joint statement that Russia's invasion of Ukraine made "the current environment not feasible" to stage the event at that time.
Daly said in 2022 that the NHL had heard from some participating countries that "would have objections to Russian participation in the World Cup." But he also said the NHL was committed to having its Russian stars participate in the World Cup: "We would certainly like to accommodate them in some credible way."
Regarding current World Cup plans, Daly told ESPN that the NHL "still wants to create and stage an international competition in February of 2025."
Walsh also said his players are interested in the NHL's Global Series, which stages games in international cities. The Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings are playing exhibition games in Melbourne, Australia, this season, while the Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs are playing regular-season games in Stockholm.
"We've had great meetings with the league on making sure that as we go to a location in the future, that we make sure [we use] that opportunity to grow the game in those places," said Walsh.