"Once we do get a deal done, after missing a full year," Wayne Gretzky said rhetorically on Tuesday, "do you want to really shut down your league for 16 days to go over to the Olympic Games?"
In one word? Absolutely!
Gretzky was in his National Hockey League part-owner mode at the time. When he's in his former-player mode or his Team Canada executive-director mode, he doesn't need to ask that question.
But since he already had come dangerously close to committing NHL treason by saying he wouldn't like his Phoenix Coyotes to use replacement players, he had to balance the scales by taking an ambivalent stand on the Olympics.
Four primary organizations need to be on side for the NHL to participate in the Olympic extravaganza: The NHL itself; the NHL Players' Association; the International Olympic Committee; and the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The last three groups are unequivocably committed. But the NHL is wavering and leaning towards non-participation.
During the 2002 Olympics, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about future involvement. "I don't know what the future is going to hold," he said. "We are going to have to look at the impact on the season. On balance, if it is good for the game, good for the players and good for our fans, then it is going to be seriously considered."
Well it was good for the players and it was fantastic for the fans. But when Bettman says "good for the game," what he really means is "good for the NHL owners."
As is the case with most things the NHL touches, a potentially positive experience was transformed into a disaster.
The NHL governors approved Olympic participation in 1998 because they wanted to be involved in 2002. They wanted 2002 because the important games were to be played in prime time in North America and there was a hope that a Canada-USA final would evolve. If it did, they believed, the game would be watched by millions of people who might not normally be exposed to hockey and who would then be turned on to the NHL.
The NHL got its dream final, but the reaction of fans wasn't, "Wow, I want to watch more hockey like this. I'll check out the NHL." It was, "Wow, I want to watch more hockey like this. Why is the NHL product so bad in comparison?"
So now, a lot of governors are asking the same question as Gretzky. Their fear is that if a deal gets done and fans are starting to trickle back by February, a prolonged absence might turn them off.
That's an alarmingly defeatist attitude. The NHL has been promising its fans a radically altered, more entertaining game when it returns.
If that's really the truth, then the hypothesis that was in place during previous Olympics -- that exposure will win fans for the NHL -- should be valid.
If the NHL is really concerned about the wishes of its Canadian fans -- a concept to which it pays lip service -- then it will give them the opportunity for a re-enactment of that wonderful 2002 experience.
Or does the NHL want Canada to defend its gold medal with amateurs?
WHAT ABOUT 2010?
And what about 2010 in Vancouver? Does the NHL plan to leave Canadians with an inferior team to support on that occasion as well? Or does the NHL feel that it can toy with the IOC and the IIHF and cherry-pick the Olympics that it will attend? Some Olympiads we'll play; some we won't.
Throughout the current labour negotiations, the NHL repeatedly has assured anyone who would listen that it has the wellbeing of fans at heart.
If that's really the case, and not just the usual self-serving drivel the NHL serves up, then it should announce immediately that it intends to participate in the 2006 Olympics.
Without a doubt, that's what the fans want.