Canada's Sidney Crosby celebrates his gold- medal game overtime goal against the USA.
(Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)
(USATODAY.com) - Enjoy watching NHL players at the Sochi Olympics because it's likely they won't be at the 2018 Games in South Korea.
The NHL won't make its decision about future Olympic participation until after it assesses what happens in Sochi. But it seems clear league officials aren't enamored with the idea of going to Pyeongchang, where hockey terms are a foreign language.
Players love going to the Olympics, and fans love having them there. But the relationship between the NHL and the Olympics has been troubled for a long time.
As much as NHL officials like the romance of participating in the Games, they have never liked shutting down the league 16 days to make it happen.
Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider said suspending the league schedule to play in the Olympics was "ridiculous." And he's not the only owner who feels this way.
This is the time of year when NHL attendance is strongest, and some markets have had trouble re-acquiring their fan base after the shutdown. Fans find other ways to spend their money. Walk-up sales aren't as strong for some teams after the Olympics.
Owners also worry about injuries affecting their playoff run. A major injury could cost a team millions of dollars in potential playoff revenue.
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The NHL and the NHL Players' Association also are planning to resurrect the World Cup of Hockey, which would be scheduled before the NHL season.
Obviously, NHL officials would prefer to have that become a major event on the league calendar because they would be in control of the product and the league and players would reap the financial benefit.
The concept of "control" long has been an issue between the NHL and International Olympic Committee. It bothers the NHL and NHLPA that it doesn't have more say at what happens with the hockey tournament at the Games.
The NHL and NHLPA negotiated a better deal for the 2014 Games, but it is fair to say the NHL believes it deserves a larger voice given the talent it provides.
When you add up all of those issues, then factor in that Asia is not a hockey area, you understand why the NHL might pull the plug on Olympic participation. Hockey games in Pyeongchang will be live in the middle of the night in America.
In the past, the NHL has tried to be non-committal about Olympic participation, but everyone in hockey knew, or least expected, the league was going to be there. This lack of commitment feels much different. This time, it feels as if league officials are truly wondering if it is worth the trouble to go to South Korea.
The players are wild cards in this equation. They overwhelmingly support going to the Olympics. And those who don't go love having a rare in-season vacation, a chance to heal from injuries.
Olympic participation isn't in the collective bargaining agreement, but the NHL is keenly aware of how players feel about it.
Plus, the league has a 10-year deal with NBC, and network officials undoubtedly would prefer to have NHL players at the Olympics. Will they lobby aggressively enough?
If you like NHL players at the Games, which most of us do, the real hope is that the NHL rediscovers the passion it had when it first allowed its players to go to the Olympics in 1998.
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At that time, the idea was simply to help grow the sport internationally.
It hasn't seemed as if the NHL has figured out how to take advantage of how much interest non-hockey fans have in the sport during the Olympics. Maybe that's the next mission for NHL chief operating officer John Collins, who has transformed outdoor hockey into one of the league's best marketing ideas.
In men's soccer, the World Cup seems more important than the Olympics. But no matter how hard the NHL and NHLPA work at building up the World Cup brand, it won't draw Olympic-like attention any time soon.
In 1992, a minor-league U.S. goalie named Ray LeBlanc had the world talking about his acrobatic heroics. At the time, USA Hockey official Art Berglund said, "Today, more people in the U.S. know LeBlanc than Brian Leetch."
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Hockey has grown considerably since, but in the 2010 Olympics, many Americans marveled at Ryan Miller's goaltending and had no idea he played for the Buffalo Sabres.
Olympic athletes sell their sport with their performances. That's why NHL officials could still decide to send players to South Korea.