IOC Coordination Commission Chairman Jean-Claude Killy, Russian President… (Alexey Druzhinyn / EPA )
The countdown to the Sochi Olympics slipped beneath the one-year mark last week with a huge question looming: Will NHL players participate in Russia's first-ever Winter Games?
The answer should be clearer after executives of the NHL, NHL Players' Assn. and International Ice Hockey Federation meet in New York on Thursday and Friday to discuss what would be the fifth Olympic tournament involving the world's best players. IIHF President Rene Fasel told "Hockey Night in Canada" he'd like an agreement to be in place by May.
"I think there is a majority from owners and players that really want to come," he said.
Staging epic matchups for worldwide audiences seems a strong enough reason to say yes, but it's not a simple decision.
The NHL gets no direct financial benefit from allowing players to represent their homelands and gets little access to players, their images, or video of them during the Games, limiting promotional opportunities. After losing nearly half of this season to a lockout, owners have little incentive to shut down for 16 days for games that won't be aired live during North American prime time.
If the IIHF and the International Olympic Committee give the NHL wider access and share the public-relations bounty, it would be well worth everyone's while for players to compete in Sochi. Many prominent Russians, including Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, have said they'd participate either way, but it's unlikely to come to that.
The NHLPA declined to comment about the upcoming talks, but Executive Director Donald Fehr has been vocal about focusing on international growth opportunities.
Unlike previous Winter Games, NHL players' involvement at Sochi wasn't negotiated through collective bargaining.
"We were both comfortable leaving that as an issue because it was not something that we felt needed to be bargained over," Commissioner Gary Bettman told The Times recently. "It's something that we needed to work out jointly one way or another and that's why we were comfortable tabling it.
"I understand that this is important to the players. I know the players' association understands that there are a variety of issues that would have to be dealt with and that's something that we'll sit down in the not-too-distant future and we'll start addressing it."
The future will arrive this week.
If it quacks like a Duck . . .
There are many reasons the Ducks should be struggling.
They're notoriously slow starters. Right wing Corey Perry, a 50-goal scorer and league most valuable player in 2010-11, has one goal. Their penalty killing ranks 29th. Goaltender Jonas Hiller has a dreaded lower-body injury. They're on a grueling six-game trip.
But look who's 8-2-1 and No. 2 in the West after winning five of six, including a 6-5 shootout victory Saturday at St. Louis. Coach Bruce Boudreau called it "cuckoo." He was right.
"The team doesn't give up and never believes they can't win. And that, to me, is a very important thing," he said by phone Sunday. "You get down 3-1 in St. Louis and most nights against that team, it's, 'Oh, well, it's going to be a tough one.'
"I thought our stick-to-it-iveness was great. . . . That makes you believe that wherever you're playing you have a chance to win."
They've done it with little from top-liner Perry but a bounce-back from Ryan Getzlaf (three goals, nine points), speedy depth, and timely points from defensemen Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray.
"I get back sometimes and I'll pinch myself," Boudreau said. "You talk about secondary scoring and we're getting a lot of that. We're just waiting for the primary scoring to start."
Right wing Teemu Selanne (four goals, 14 points) on Saturday recorded his second four-point performance in 22 days, half the four-point games in NHL history by a player 42 or older. The others were by Gordie Howe in 1971 and Tim Horton in 1972.
Selanne's point total is his best through his first 11 games since he had the same total for Winnipeg in the 1995-96 season — when he was 25.
"You talk about his age, but look at the people he's playing against — 25-year-olds who are powerfully built men," Boudreau said. "I find it quite amazing."
Boudreau also praised Saku Koivu, 38, who has four goals, 13 points and a +11 defensive rating. "He's been our best player day in and day out," Boudreau said. "He's been leading by example. He leads every practice and works his rear end off and in every game he's giving it everything he's got."
The Ducks face what Boudreau considers a measuring-stick game Tuesday, when they play the top-ranked Blackhawks at Chicago.
"I don't know if they're going to think of it as a measuring stick for them," he said. "We know they're good and they're not that long ago removed from winning the Cup. They're like us in that they're a little bit revived because they didn't have a great year last year so they're trying to prove their detractors wrong, and they certainly are.
"It's a great test for us. If we can come out of this road trip with our lives here, I think we'll be pretty comfortable that we're not a bad team."
The New York Islanders found a loophole in the new labor deal when they were allowed to acquire retired goalie Tim Thomas from Boston in order to reach the salary floor. Thomas has no intention of playing and General Manager Garth Snow knows it. Think of it this way: Thomas will play only slightly less than goalie Rick DiPietro, who has been limited by injuries to only 48 games since 2008-09.
The Kings are still working with White House officials to schedule the traditional champions' visit. . . . The Philadelphia Flyers overpaid in re-signing nearly 38-year-old defenseman Kimmo Timonen to a one-year, $6-million extension. But they overpaid goalie Ilya Bryzgalov too, at $51 million over nine years.