NHL players have been a staple in the Winter Olympics since 1998 at Nagano, with the league taking a two-week mid-season break to allow the world's greatest players to represent their home countries and compete for Olympic gold.
But the timetable for a decision was announced because the league is already working on dates for the 2017-18 schedule and Olympic and global ice hockey officials must have time for a new plan if the NHL says no to going to South Korea in 2018.
"Whether it's January 1 or 15th or 20th, that's not the issue," Bettman said in a posting on the league's website. "This isn't drifting into the spring."
A major hurdle to a sixth consecutive Olympics for NHL talent in 15 months is the $10 million in insurance, travel and accommodation costs for players and guests.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) covered them for Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver and Sochi but has indicated to the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) it will not do so this time.
The IIHF met with the IOC last week and will meet with NHL officials on Wednesday.
Bettman said the IIHF could provide money to defray travel, lodging and insurance costs, but expressed concerned about them trying to save money in that scenario.
"The most likely thing is the International Ice Hockey Federation will come in and say we're going to do it on a pared-down basis," he said. "It may impact what is provided to the players and their families, but conceptually if you're worried about hockey development worldwide at the grassroots level, why are they taking money away from that to fund NHL player participation at the Olympics?"
IOC money cut 'game changer' to NHL
Bettman said the league has not received a response about how the IOC or IIHF would feel about the NHL skipping South Korea but agreeing to have players in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, where participation is far more likely to benefit the league in marketing and future deals.
"The IOC says this is how we're going to do it, we're not going to pay, you can't do this or that," Bettman said. "It doesn't give you the warm and fuzzies. Having said that, we've managed for the last five Olympics to go, although what the IOC is saying now is a little bit of a game-changer at least in terms of what has to be considered before making a decision."
Bettman sees no hope for league owners to foot the bill for extra expenses since they make no money and risk injury to star players from the Olympics. Owners next gather at meetings on December 8-9 in Palm Beach, Florida.
"Ultimately, it's a decision from an NHL standpoint that the owners are going to make," Bettman said. "I know there's some grumpiness, I don't know exactly how much, on the whole process of disrupting the season."
"When it comes to disrupting the season, we go halfway around the world, play a half-a-dozen games that matter in either Canada and the US, or maybe less than a half-a-dozen games," he added. "You play them at odd times and you give up for 17 days prime-time exposure when we're about the hit the stretch run of our season, when there is no football, no baseball, just us and the NBA."
"It's tough," he said. "There's a loss in momentum."