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Sunday, April 25, 2004
Updated: April 27, 6:53 PM ET
Participation must be included in CBA

ESPN.com news services

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The 2006 Winter Olympics will be played without NHL players if the league is shut down by January because of a labor dispute.

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said Sunday that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has told his group that if the league is not playing, then its players will not be at the Turin Games.

"It's important for our national federations to know whether they are playing or not, especially for the U.S. and Canada," Fasel said at a news conference.

The NHL's participation at the Olympics must be included in the next collective bargaining agreement. The deal expires Sept. 15.

A possible lockout could substantially curtail or even cancel next season, although Bettman has said he believes a work stoppage can be avoided.

"We have always said that our first and most important priority is negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA, and we will not rush into any decision on the Olympics until that has been accomplished," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.

Fasel said if the NHL plays a reduced season next year, similar to the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Bettman would not want the NHL to take a 16-day break in February 2006 for his players to go to Italy.

Sources have told The Sports Network of Canada that the NHL, in conjunction with the Players Association, is working toward a reduced 72-game schedule, down 10 games from 82.

An agreement has been finalized, particularly because the complex negotiations for a new CBA still loom. But, according to TSN, the league and the union appear to be on the same page: They agree it is in everyone's best interests to play fewer games.

According to TSN's sources, the NHL has a working model for a 72-game season that would eliminate all interlocking play between the Eastern and Western conference teams.

This was the clearest indication so far that the NHL will skip the Olympics after sending its players to the 1998 Nagano Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

"While the January date is not something I remember having discussed with the IIHF, it would seem sensible," Daly said. "We certainly respect the IIHF's need for some certainty."

If the NHL skips Turin, the Olympic tournament would resume its old ways, with European-based pros and young players from North America representing their countries.

Regardless of what happens with Turin, however, Fasel said he was convinced NHL players would be at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"We'll be in Canada, and I cannot see the NHL not being there," Fasel said.

Fasel also said it was almost certain Canada would be selected to host the 2008 world hockey championships for the first time, celebrating the IIHF's 100-year anniversary.

The IIHF congress will vote on the host city in Prague on May 8. Canada is widely expected to win over the two other candidates, Germany and Sweden.