NHL, Olympics might be together for final time

Oct 1 2009 - 9:23pm

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(The Associated Press) The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames face-off during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game at GM Place in Vancouver, Monday.
(The Associated Press) The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames face-off during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game at GM Place in Vancouver, Monday.

 

NEW YORK -- Olympic hockey is coming home to Canada, and this time it will be different.

The tournament won't be staged on Olympic-sized ice, and it won't take a back seat to other glamour winter sports. On the flip side, it might be the last one to feature NHL players.

Either way, fans in Vancouver will be in a frenzy.

"It's a chance of the lifetime to play in the Olympics in your own back yard," said Columbus Blue Jackets star Rick Nash, an Ontario native. "It's going to be exciting, and the whole country is going to be going crazy."

Once February arrives, the NHL will again take a two-week break from its season to allow the world's most recognizable players to compete for the most cherished prize in the sport this side of the Stanley Cup.

So far, there is no agreement between the league and the players' association to send NHL players to the 2014 Sochi Games, so this could be their swan song.

Some who grew up outside of North America, in hockey hotbeds like Eastern Europe or in places like Sweden and Finland, might feel that Olympic gold inspires more hopes and dreams than a potential NHL title.

Since the 1998 Nagano Games, the NHL has supplied the majority of talent to the Olympics. With long travel, tricky starting times and the concern that a break in the season curtails attention heading into the second half, that soon might be a thing of the past,

Sweden topped Finland for the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games.

"It's a chance to play in front of your home country and play on home soil," said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, a three-time Olympian. "It's probably my last chance to play in the Olympics. It might be the last chance for NHL players.

"There are a lot of pros and cons to it, especially when it's in Europe or Asia. It's a long flight and it's hard on the guys. We travel all season long and then to throw six or seven different time zones into the mix ... it's pretty taxing."

Sure it works better when North America is the host -- like this time, and in 2002 at Salt Lake City -- but that isn't the norm. The time difference between Sochi and the U.S. East Coast is 8 hours.

"Going to the Olympics is a balancing act," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The benefits versus the burdens of doing it have to be weighed. When we were in Salt Lake City, and I know when we are in Vancouver, it's going to be terrific. We're in North America. North American time zones, prime time TV. When we were in Japan and Italy, not so good.

"Taking the break in the season deals with a loss of momentum. It's also a competitive issue. Because teams with a more diverse international roster come back a little more tired for the stretch run than teams who didn't have very many players participate who had two weeks off."

Any participation, or lack thereof, will have to be negotiated between the league and the players' union. There is no question players still want to go.

"We're not going to look at it until after we get through the Vancouver experience," Bettman said.

Players such as Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins have wanted to be Olympians since they were kids. Some American children were inspired by the 1980 U.S. team that shocked the Soviet Union and went on to win gold in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Others from a younger generation were hooked by the United States' win over Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship.

"It's been a goal of mine since I was 5 years old and watched the 1980 Olympics," Thomas said. "I had it planned out in my head that 1996 would have been my junior year of college. Back when I was planning this out, only college players were playing in the Olympics.

"Then it switched, so that threw off all my plans. I kind of gave up on the dream of playing in the Olympics, to a certain extent, because I wasn't even in the NHL. How was I going to make it to the Olympics? So now to possibly have this opportunity, it would be very special."

Pronger, who grew up in Ontario, was more concerned about donning an NHL sweater than one with the Canadian Maple Leaf on it.

"It was not on my radar," said Pronger, a gold medal winner in 2002. "I always dreamed of playing in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup. At that time, amateurs were still in the Olympics and I didn't think it was something that was going to happen.

"Once they made that move and said NHL players would participate in the Olympics, you wanted to be part of that."

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who hails from Nova Scotia, was midway through his rookie season four years ago and wasn't picked for the Olympic team. His rival, Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, was also in his first year but got the chance to play for Russia.

"To see the Olympics on TV and to see the way our country comes together and the support they show is an amazing thing," Crosby said. "To be a part of that would be a great opportunity and should continue to be an opportunity that NHL players have. Hopefully they find a way to make it work because I'm sure a lot of players feel the same way."

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist backstopped Sweden's gold medal victory, and knows this time will be a new experience.

"It will be more intense," Lundqvist said. "It was great in Torino, but I think it will be another level in Vancouver, in a positive way. They love hockey and they will be a great host."

 

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