By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The success or failure of the World Cup of Hockey will not determine whether the National Hockey League continues its Olympic participation, said league commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday.
While the World Cup, an eight team, best-on-best tournament, begins on Saturday in Toronto, Bettman said it was well-known, thorny issues with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) that could scupper the NHL's Winter Games future.
With the NHL already unhappy at shutting down in the middle of the season to allow players to participate in the Olympics, the IOC further antagonized owners by announcing earlier this year it would no longer cover insurance and travel costs.
"The fact we are doing a World Cup and we believe it is going to be huge success, and that we are going to continue to do it on a regular basis does not mean we can't also do the Olympics," stressed Bettman, speaking at the Economic Club of Canada.
"The fact that there are complications relevant to the stopping of our season in the middle at a very prime time ... and the difficulties of dealing with the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation are really the factors if we continue to go."
After a 12-year hiatus, the NHL and NHL Players Association have rebooted the World Cup with plans to stage it every four years, positioning it to become the league's prime global property and lessening the need for the spotlight the Olympics can provide.
With the NHL believing it is putting more into its Olympic investment than it is getting in return, and the IOC offering little sympathy or concessions, tough negotiations lie ahead.
While the IOC has had problems convincing NHL owners that Olympic ideals are noble and worth pursuing, players have bought in. Russian captain Alex Ovechkin says he plans to compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games no matter what the league decides.
Donald Fehr, head of the powerful NHL Players Association, acknowledged that the Olympics is something the players want and sees no reason there cannot be room for both.
"The events are fundamentally different, they are played different times and there is a long, long history to the Olympics," said Fehr, who joined Bettman on the panel.
"The players want to play provided an appropriate agreement can be reached so you can shut the season down. Shutting down a $4 billion business for several weeks is not the easiest thing in the world.
"Having said that, I don't see any reason why one would preclude the other."
A successful World Cup may not be the deciding factor in continuing participation in the Winter Games but it would give the NHL a safety net if it decides to pull the plug on Olympic involvement.
Bettman said the World Cup is the foundation for a new commitment to growing the game globally and that the NHL was pushing ahead with discussions about a North American v Europe Ryder Cup style competition along with other tournaments and events in Europe.
"The game plan is to use this (World Cup) as a foundation for new, more energized effort to give us a bigger presence outside of North America," said Bettman.
"Whether or not it is a new event, more exhibition games against local teams, exhibition games among NHL teams, regular season games, clinics, it is all part of what we want to do, need to do to grow the game at all levels throughout the world."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine)