Commentary

Last days of the NHL in the Olympics?

Updated: February 18, 2010, 4:41 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The problem with the Olympics as far as the National Hockey League is concerned is that the myth continues to bleed into the reality, distorting the picture, clouding the issue.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky
Brian Bahr /Allsport Wayne Gretzky gave us one of the Olympics' indelible memories.

Is there magic to be had at the Olympics? Of course.

Who can forget the Czech shootout victory over Canada in 1998 and the image of Wayne Gretzky slumped over on the Canadian bench after the loss?

That is an image that transcends sport.

Or how about Mats Sundin with the Swedish flag draped over his shoulders four years ago in Torino helping to erase the horrible stain of the Swedes' ouster by Belarus in Salt Lake City?

Or how about the Russians and the Americans in the 2002 semifinals delivering one of the most exciting games since the NHL joined the Olympics in '98: end-to-end action as the Americans -- with an aging Mike Richter in net -- held off a furious Russian charge?

It's not just what takes place wherever the Games are held every four years, but the emotion the hockey tournament sparks across the globe.

How about the million people that flooded into historic downtown Prague after the '98 Games, when the Czechs brought home that improbable gold medal?

Or the spontaneous celebrations in cities and towns across Canada in 2002 when Mario Lemieux et al ended a 50-year gold-medal drought in Salt Lake City?

Or, on the other side the of the "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" coin, how about the savaging of the Swedes in '02, after Vladimir Kopat's long, harmless-looking shot eluded Swedish goalie Tommy Salo and the Swedes were eliminated from contention for the gold medal an entire nation felt was theirs for the taking? Newspapers printed photos of the Swedish players mug-shot-style, along with their NHL salaries. Salo, for one, was never the same.

In the coming days here in Vancouver, we feel certain there will be other memories of the indelible kind to pack away forever.

Perhaps a medal confrontation between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, or a dark horse upending a medal favorite, or maybe a stirring medal run from a young, gritty American team.

"I think it probably could be the best hockey event of all time if we all live up to what we're capable of," Canadian coach Mike Babcock said on the eve of the tournament.

The memories are big and textured because the Olympic stage is as grand as it gets for sport.

But these memories aren't free. And at what cost are they made?

I think [the Vancouver Olympics] probably could be the best hockey event of all time if we all live up to what we're capable of.

-- Canadian coach Mike Babcock

"It's clear when you look at these games from 30,000 feet it's all good," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday at a press conference attended by the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel.

"But you do have to take a step back at ground level and look at the impact on our season and what perhaps what we can do about it."

For a business entity like the National Hockey League, that is the crux of the matter as the clock ticks down on what may well be the last Olympic Games with the NHL on board.

The debate is shot through with emotion, especially against the backdrop of the highly anticipated tournament at these Vancouver Games.

The International Ice Hockey Federation's position on this is clear. They believe the NHL's resistance to committing long-term to the Olympics beyond Vancouver is shortsighted.

"I have a very tough time to understand why people think like this. I mean, hockey is not only a business. Hockey is a game, it's a sport, and we need global sport," said Fasel, this week.

"If you want to develop a product -- let's say soap -- if you want to develop that globally you need to go globally. And if the NHL just wants to stay in North America … OK, but if they want to go a little bit more global and help us to develop young players, then they should say yes," Fasel said.

Standing a few feet away, the NHL's deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, insisted that the matter is far more complex than people understand.

He's right.

The Olympics can certainly exist without the NHL. They did it for decades before the NHL joined the party in 1998. Who could forget Peter Forsberg's shootout goal against Corey Hirsch in '94 to win the gold, a moment that ended up being reproduced on a Swedish stamp?

[+] EnlargeAlexander Ovechkin
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesAlexander Ovechkin has made his passion for representing Russia in the next games clear.

But having the NHL involved gives the Olympic tournament -- and by extension the IIHF -- considerable cachet.

The men's hockey tournament is the centerpiece of the Winter Olympics, and certainly some of the luster would be lost if the NHL stays home when the Games move to Sochi, Russia, in four years.

Still, there are lots of people -- including many NHL owners -- who would be more than happy to see the NHL wave goodbye to the Olympics forever when the lights go down on the Vancouver Games.

What did it cost the Ottawa Senators, for instance, when netminder Dominik Hasek went down with a groin injury a few moments into the first game of the '06 tournament? It is not overstating it to say millions of dollars in lost playoff revenue, and possibly a Stanley Cup championship.

And what does it cost teams like Phoenix or Colorado or the Los Angeles Kings, who are enjoying breakout seasons, to now see their schedules darkened for two weeks to accommodate this tournament?

Let's assume that this 2010 tournament becomes what many have predicted: a masterpiece of international hockey, a spellbinding display of drama and emotion played out in front of monster television audiences and followed by millions on the Internet. It is not simply a matter of assuming that the same tournament four years from now in Sochi would have the same impact on the NHL specifically and the game as a whole. The line cannot be drawn directly from one to the other.

Instead of having the games on in prime time, the Sochi Games will be played while those all-important viewers and advertisers are asleep or having breakfast or at work.

And so many within the NHL family ask: Why bother?

A cynic might suggest all of this is merely political posturing by the league.

The Russians have been difficult to deal with in terms of international transfer agreements and on other matters regarding poaching players, but they also desperately want the NHL on board for the Sochi Games.

Likewise, the NHLPA -- reacting to very strong support from its membership -- will lobby for the NHL to stay in the Olympic program.

"I believe that in the three Olympic Games that the NHL has participated, it has enhanced the Games. I think it's been great for hockey. You've had three different gold-medal winners. I think it's been great for the game and it's been great for the NHL," said Steve Yzerman, a former Olympian and the head of the Canadian Olympic hockey team, this week.

"I can tell you as a former player, in playing with a lot of these guys and knowing them, they love being a part of it, it's an incredible honor for them. My opinion, it would be a mistake for us to not to be involved, regardless of the inconvenience; it would be a mistake for the game if we're not involved," Yzerman said, echoing the sentiments of literally hundreds of players.

So the Olympics become another bargaining chip when it comes time to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement.

There are some who believe the NHL is already prepared to continue going to the Olympics, but will demand some significant concessions from the players in order to agree to it, perhaps capping the term of NHL contracts or adjusting the rules regarding free agency.

And so we wait. And wonder if we are seeing the final days of what has become an often-compelling, sometimes-quaint confluence of millionaire athletes and snowboarders and speedskaters.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.