Some NHLers in Olympic bind

What began as a great idea at the time -- sending National Hockey League players to the Olympic Games -- has become more complicated and confusing than anyone could have imagined.

Front and centre among the many issues now clouding NHL participation is the question of player loyalty -- loyalty to team, loyalty to country, loyalty to contract.

Take the case of Bryan McCabe of the Maple Leafs. He was originally named to Team Canada as one of its taxi squad players, which meant he would only play if someone else was injured. And that someone else happened to be Ed Jovanovski of Vancouver.

So McCabe, the Leafs leading point-getter and most indispensable player -- the team lost eight of nine when he was out with a groin injury -- is now part of the Team Canada playing roster in Turin.

The question is, while McCabe clearly wants to play for Canada at the Olympics, is it in the best interest of his employer, the Maple Leafs, who pay him $3.458 million US a season, to have him exposed to potential further injury?

And who makes the call here?

And how exactly is it made?

Brian Burke has a similar situation with the Anaheim Ducks. His best player and his highest-paid player, Scott Niedermayer, has been playing for more than a month with an injured knee. He has been playing well.

He may require surgery. He may not. But suddenly, the question is more complicated by circumstance. Who decides whether Niedermayer plays in Turin? The player? The team? The country?

Who makes the determination and in whose best interest should that decision be made?

There is not necessarily a right and wrong here which makes it all the more complicated.

Burke, screaming into a telephone because it's the only tone he knows, insists the decision belongs to Niedermayer. When asked why, he screams some more.

"Because he's earned the right," said Burke. "We will live with Scott's decision, with whatever he decides, because we believe in him. At some point the player earns the right to make that call."

But Burke applies a dubious double-standard to his argument also. He said that Vancouver's Markus Naslund, for example, because of his star status, has earned the right to decide whether he would play hurt for Sweden, while the Sedin twins, based on their second line status, have not.

If that isn't convoluted logic, what is?

And what's to stop the owner of the Ducks or the Canucks or the Flames or the Maple Leafs from saying to a player: 'We're protecting our investment here. We would prefer -- hint, hint -- that you don't play in the Olympics, because we would prefer it you are around at playoff time when we're in profit mode.'

Or something similar to that.

In 2002, Mario Lemieux gave everything he had to play for Canada on the gold-medal-winning team in Salt Lake City. He played so hard and so well and so hurt that he had nothing left for the rest of the season. He didn't play again for Pittsburgh that year.

What happens if Bryan McCabe can't play after February? What if he, like so many others, re-injures his groin?

"We're not pressuring anyone to go," said Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada. "We don't want a player to put himself in the position where he has to make a decision between his team and us.

"We're in the fortunate position to have more people wanting to play for us than ever before. We're just fortunate that if we have to make changes, we have the depth to do so."

Other countries aren't so so fortunate. Somebody got to Miikka Kiprusoff and told him to rest, rather than play goal in the Olympics for Finland. Their second choice, Kari Lehtonen, played for Atlanta Tuesday night, but won't play for Finland in Turin.

Ottawa tried to persuade Dominik Hasek to stay home but conversely was unsuccessful.

"Some players put an awful lot into this game, they leave a mark, they deserve to make the choice," said Burke, who might be screaming about something else should Scott Niedermayer come home from the Olympic Games in need of surgery.

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