- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2010

Throughout the Winter Olympics, NHL officials have been inconclusive about the possibility that the Vancouver games might be the last to feature NHL stars. But will Sunday afternoon’s blockbuster television ratings for the gold-medal game open the door for stars like Sidney Crosby and Ryan MIller to take the ice in Sochi in 2014? “This costs us money, this disrupts our season and we’re here because we think it helps our game,” NHL commissioner told reporters during the Olympics. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to and it doesn’t mean we are going to go.

Several players, including the Washington Capital’s Alex Ovechkin, have already indicated they want to participate in the Russias games in 2014 — a desire the league may use as a bargaining chip in ongoing labor agreement talks.

“We will have a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement),” Bettman said, “and it will be a subject of discussions.”

Even Brian Burke, the architect of the United States squad that took home silver, put on his NHL general manager’s hat when discussing the future of the NHL and the Olympics.

“I hear people saying, what’s the issue?” Burke told the Toronto Star. “The Olympics are great for the game, great for hockey coverage.

“But there’s a flip side. We basically closed our doors at an absolutely key time in the season and told our fans, come back in three weeks.”

Clearly, this year’s tournament helped expose the sport to a wide audience.

Feb. 21’s U.S.-Canada matchup was bumped to cable’s MSNBC — which isn’t offered in high-definition in many areas — and still drew 8.22 million viewers, only short of the viewers the channel got for the 2008 presidential election results. In the afternoon, 5.9 million watched the U.S. top the Swiss (despite the game being tape-delayed in two time zones) Wednesday, and 6.0 million watched a 6-1 blowout of Finland Friday.

And the coup for the NHL (and TV partner NBC) was the gold-medal game, as the overnight numbers for Sunday afternoon’s telecast are the highest for any hockey game since 1980, garnering a 17.6 overnight rating. To put it in perspective, according to Sports Media Watch, that overnight number is better than every World Series game since 2004, not to mention every NBA Finals or NCAA title game since 1998.

The number also was 46 percent bigger than 2002’s U.S.-Canada final, which had held the distinction of being the most-watched game since 1980 until Sunday.

But the two held in Nagano and Turin didn’t fare as well, as the games in Japan were held mostly overnight on the East Coast and had poor peformances by both North American squads. The 1998 tournament featured a Czech Republic-Russia final and 2006 saw a Sweden-Finland tilt that didn’t draw in casual fans.

With Sochi being eight time zones ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, the ratings don’t figure to be great for that tournament, and with 2018’s Winter Olympics a longshot to be held in North America, the league might be reluctant to commit to 12 years before getting the level of attention it enjoyed in Salt Lake City and Vancouver.

NHL stars — particularly Russian ones — have pushed hard to continue the participation in the Olympics. The question of whether the league’s players return to the games will likely depend on how much they give up when renewing the CBA after next season.

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