NHLers at Olympics 'emotional issue'

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:33 PM ET

TORONTO – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he didn’t want to get into a public negotiation when it comes to the NHL’s participation in the next Olympics.

He was the only one.

A discussion on the success of hockey at the Vancouver Olympic Games Wednesday at the World Hockey Summit quickley veered off into an emotional dialogue about whether or not NHL players will be in Sochi in 2014.

No brainer, right?

After Vancouver, it just makes too much sense.

The players’ participation will have to be bargained as part of the next CBA, but Jamie Langenbrunner of the New Jersey Devils, who was the captain of Team USA in Vancouver and Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, said the benefits of having NHL players in Sochi transcend it being a bargaining chip in CBA negotiations.

"It means a lot to us. We want to grow the game. It’s great for the fans," said Alfredsson. "I don’t think it should be bargained in the CBA. It’s bigger than that."

"It’s not something we feel is an option as a bargaining chip," said Langenbrunner. "It’s not something that makes sense to bargain over. It’s something that makes sense for the league and our partnership."

Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins have said they are going to Sochi whether they have the NHL’s permission or not. They’ve got Langenbrunner’s support, but he wouldn’t say if he would do the same.

"I don’t think any of us would speak badly of a teammate if that’s what they wanted to do," said Langenbrunner. "You can definitely understand not only the draw to do that but also the pressure, especially for the guys from Russia."

I’d be surprised if Ovechkin and Malkin – or any other player – are put in a spot where they have to break a contract.

The NHL, at least for public consumption, is far from committed to the Olympic ideal, but that could be posturing to wring the best deal possible from the players and Olympic organizers. Bettman said there are issues that need to be addressed before the league’s board of governors would agree to release its players to compete in the Games, though those issues hardly sound like deal breakers – better access for NHL general managers and owners to their players, better building access; a TV deal that puts the games on before Letterman.

Given it’s the IOC they’re dealing with, you never know.

Despite the overwhelming success of the Vancouver tournament, there remain serious concerns on the NHL’s part about shutting down for a couple of weeks and the lack of quantifiable proof that it's good for business.

"There is virtually no tangible positive business impact at all," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

That seems hard to believe, given the exposure NHL players get at the Olympics. But, on the other hand, in some markets having the NHL shut down for two weeks can be a momentum killer.

The backlash against the league, if it decides to withhold the players’ services, should be considered, too.

Most of the people at the Summit not named Gary have a vested interest in having NHLers at the Olympics, so it’s not a surprise his was almost a lone voice of sobre second thought regarding the NHL-Olympic experience.

Most people not named Gary just see how much fun it is.

"People say it’s priceless, let’s get on a plane, but it’s not that simple. We’re letting it become an emotional issue," said Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, his voice rising during a panel discussion. "I want to go, too, but it has got to be a win for everybody."

Making it a win for everybody is tough.

It’s a win for the game, which should be enough.


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