- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

For the fourth time in 12 years, the National Hockey League is taking a mid-season break to allow its players time to represent their respective countries in the Olympics.

NBA players who want to play for their nation and try to win a gold medal have the advantage of the Summer Olympics being held in the league’s off-season and can play on their own free time.

The International Olympic Committee also had hoped that top Major League Baseball players would leave their teams temporarily to represent their countries. However, resistance from MLB clubs — and players reluctant to risk losing millions of dollars to leave for several weeks during the middle of the season — left the Olympics full of minor-league and college players, eventually leading to the IOC removing the sport from the program for the 2012 London Olympics.

But after Sundays games, the NHL goes dark for 14 days, with most of the leagues 690 players heading for sun and vacation. But the leagues biggest stars are heading to Vancouver to represent their nations in the men’s ice hockey tournament, which begins Tuesday at one of the current NHL arenas, GM Place — renamed Canada Hockey Place for the duration of the Olympics.

For hockey fans, it’s truly a top-flight event, with NHL stars playing in a short three-game round-robin schedule, followed by the single-elimination medal round.

For the players themselves, it’s a chance to claim an Olympic gold-medal and represent a nation rather than just a city or franchise.

But this year’s Olympics could be the last time this break takes place — which could make things interesting in four years as some stars plan to participate in the 2014 Sochi games with or without the owners’ blessing.

Several top players, including two-time league’s MVP Alexander Ovechkin, as well as New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk, are excited about the next Winter Olympics being staged in their home country of Russia. And several of the NHL’s Russians aren’t shy about saying they are willing to forego millions of dollars to pull on their nation’s sweater instead of playing for their NHL clubs during those Olympics in February 2014.

“Nobody can say to me you can’t play for your country in the Olympic Games,” Ovechkin told Canadian network TSN back in September. “I don’t care. I’ll go play in the Olympic Games for my country. If somebody says to me you can’t play, see ya.”

While the NHL had grand visions of helping to boost its product when it elected to allow its players to participate in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Dominik Hasek led the Czech Republic to the gold medal that year, but overshadowing the on-ice performances of the NHL stars for most casual fans was the ugly controversy surrounding the U.S. men’s hockey team and its reported chair-throwing at the Olympic Village.

Salt Lake City featured a memorable U.S.-Canada final, but even the highly-rated gold-medal game that ended Canada’s 50-year gold-medal drought in the sport had short coattails for the league itself.

As part of the league’s latest bargaining agreement which ended the contentious lockout in 2005, the players were granted two more trips to the Olympics. In the last Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, the Swedes were the upset winners, and now perhaps the final chapter will unfold beginning Tuesday in Vancouver.

It was a no-brainer to have NHL players in this year’s tournament with the games held in the television-friendly Pacific Time Zone and in hockey-mad Canada, where the tournament will be one of the primary focuses of this year’s games. Still, even the strong U.S.-Canada matchup on Feb. 21 is relegated to MSNBC on basic cable rather than being held on the NHL’s broadcast network, NBC.

With the games heading to Sochi in four years — and it is unlikely a North American city will host the 2018 Winter Olympics — the league isn’t as convinced they need to undergo the expense of shutting down the league for two weeks.

“In some places, the benefits are greater for the Olympic participation than others,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters recently. “When you’re in Vancouver or Salt Lake City and you’re in North American time zones and you’re getting that type of coverage, then you are getting coverage that may be commensurate with shutting down.

“When you’re halfway around the world, maybe the coverage isn’t as great. The time zone in Sochi, Russia, for example is [8 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone.]”

The other concern among owners is the possibility the NHL season could be determined by an injury during the tournament after all, if a team’s superstar is hurt while playing for his country, it could cost a Stanley Cup championship — and millions in potential revenue.

Rene Fasel, who runs the International Ice Hockey Federation, the group that puts on the Olympic tournament, told the Globe and Mail that the players want to participate in Sochi.

“Speaking with the players, I know they want to go,” Fasel said. “Just listen to what Ovechkin says, or [Evgeni] Malkin. Even the guys who don’t play in the Olympics, they want to go on vacation, playing golf during the break. Even they would be in favor.”

But for some players, this year’s tournament could signal a memorable — and final chapter — of NHL players in the Olympics.

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