Liam Morgan @ITG

Last night, the National Hockey League (NHL) named their greatest 100 players ever at an event held to kick-start the All-Star weekend here in Los Angeles.

A star-studded audience watched on as the best to grace the world’s most famous professional hockey league were honoured in front of their peers, past and present, in what was a celebration a visiting Brit would label as typically American.

It was not short of hyperbole, hype and humour. It had its fair sprinkling of celebrity, too, as actor Keanu Reeves and singer John Legend were among those who were in attendance at an arena which would play host to weightlifting should Los Angeles win the right to stage the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Legend, to the delight of those who had paid as much as $300 (£240/€280) for a ticket to the event, performed Love Me Now, one of his many hit singles.

The sentiment of the song may have struck a chord with several players on the stage, many of whom had tasted Olympic success in their illustrious careers, as it appears the NHL bigwigs have fallen out of love with the Games, perhaps with irreparable consequences.

Discussions over NHL participation at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang have seemingly been going on for an eternity. The impasse has often turned sour, with negotiations proving increasingly fractious.

The NHL named their 100 greatest players of all time last night to begin the All-Star weekend in Los Angeles ©Getty Images
The NHL named their 100 greatest players of all time last night to begin the All-Star weekend in Los Angeles ©Getty Images

In what represents an all-too familiar scenario in the current sporting landscape, the suits who sit in boardrooms and attend matches only to sample the fine wine and canapes on offer in the executive suites are denying players an opportunity many of them desperately crave.

It is clear that those who give their blood, sweat and tears out on the ice for their respective NHL team want to be given the chance to represent their country at next year’s Games. Some of the inductees onto the list of the 100 greatest of all time have already had the Olympic experience and many, such as double Olympic gold medallist Sidney Crosby, will hope they have more to come.

As it stands, a resolution is no closer than it was six months ago. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in December that they were still finding a “compelling reason” to allow players to participate in Pyeongchang, while his boss, Gary Bettman, claimed team owners were showing a “strong negative sentiment” towards the Olympic Games.

A final decision was widely expected to be made at some point this month and logic dictates the decision will go against those who want to be granted permission to head to Pyeongchang 2018 and compete for the hallowed ice hockey gold medal.

The argument largely centres on money. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) have opted to stop covering the cost of transportation and accommodation fees as they previously had, which amount to around $10 million (£8 million/€9.3 million) due to the long flights involved to South Korea.

The NHL Players' Association (NHLPA), despite being keenly in favour of the league’s stars heading to Pyeongchang, have formally turned down a deal which would have permitted Winter Olympic participation in return for an extension to their current collective bargaining agreement, due to expire in 2022.

Canada's Eric Lindros, Olympic gold medallist at Salt Lake City 2002, has voiced his support for NHL players competing at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
Canada's Eric Lindros, Olympic gold medallist at Salt Lake City 2002, has voiced his support for NHL players competing at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

Daly has also insisted the expense row is not the only hurdle which must be cleared. The NHL would have to shut down for two weeks in order for its players to compete at the Games, scheduled to take place from February 9 to 25, representing another roadblock on the path to any solution.

Yet surely disruption to the league for a mere two-week period every four years is a sacrifice worth making to enable players to become Olympians? After all, NHL stars have taken part at the previous five Games, dating back to Nagano 1998.

It is a minefield of political jostling and jousting, with the parties involved still at loggerheads. Eric Lindros, named as one of the 100 greatest ever and a member of the Canadian team which clinched gold at Salt Lake City 2002, believes it is a real shame. And he is right.

“There's nothing like the purity of that [the Olympics],” he told CBC.

“To be in the Olympic Village, to go to the Opening and Closing ceremony and to meet athletes from all sports who have become friends for life, it was very special.

“The almighty dollar has everything to do with what happens here. It's down to money. That is the state of the game.”

Lindros, whose NHL career spanned 15 years between 1992 and 2007, is not alone in his support for participation in Pyeongchang. Even IOC President Thomas Bach has gone on record saying it is in the “best interest” of all involved to see players from the league take part at the Games next year.

IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Angela Ruggiero agrees. The four-time ice hockey Olympian whose crowning moment came when she helped the United States win gold at Nagano 1998, exclusively told insidethegames before Christmas that it was “immensely important to ensure NHL participation”.

Angela Ruggiero, third right, has claimed it is immensely important for NHL players to participate at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
Angela Ruggiero, third right, has claimed it is immensely important for NHL players to participate at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

Not only that, but the American, whose Olympic medal collection also includes two silvers and a bronze, pointed to the benefits NHL players competing at the Games have for the global development of the sport.

“The statistics since Nagano have shown how the Olympics can have a significant impact in the host nation,” she said.

"Having growth opportunities in the sport is really important and it would be a really bad thing to miss out on that.”

Is that reason enough, Mr Daly?

There are even suggestions that the NHL might skip Pyeongchang and return in time for Beijing 2022 in order to capitalise on the booming Chinese sporting market which shows no sign of slowing down.

China is unquestionably more appealing to the NHL than South Korea. The lack of any real ice hockey pedigree in either nation is obvious but, if you take the aggressive plans the former country is undertaking to help improve their football team as an example, the opportunities for growth are far greater.

But the NHL should not be able to pick and choose. To coin a poker term, you’re either all in or you’re not.

The Gangneung Hockey Centre is due to be the main ice hockey venue at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
The Gangneung Hockey Centre is due to be the main ice hockey venue at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

Despite the current bleak situation, sparked by the continued deadlock in talks, there is light at the end of the tunnel as a similar agreement was reached just seven months before Sochi 2014.

We are now just over a year away from the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony, though, so urgency is clearly required.

While attention will veer sharply from the issue for the All-Star weekend, culminating in tomorrow's All-Star Game, the NHL owe it to the players to return to the table and hammer out a deal to ensure the ice hockey stars of the future are not denied pursuing their Olympic dream. 

The stars of the past, many of whom were rewarded here last night, would surely agree.