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ROY MacGREGOR

NHL eyes 2014 Olympics warily Add to ...

"I'm not someone who likes to look back," he says.

The problem is, when you spend a few hours talking to Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, so much of the time is spent looking at what happened (the owners' lockout) and what is or is not currently happening (action on headshots) that you barely get around to the future.

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And once there, you don't actually ever seem to arrive.

"I look forward," Bettman likes to say. And he does, but in such a circumspect, non-committal way that it is, at times, difficult to say exactly what he might be thinking - in part because he himself cannot be certain which way league general managers might turn on, say, discipline or team owners on such matters as franchise relocation.

So let us look at something that was mentioned in The Globe and Mail's recent interview with the commissioner and speculate, if we may, on what it may or may not mean for Canadians.

There can be no arguing that people in this country have a vested interest in continued NHL involvement in the Winter Olympics.

The reasons for this are many, but let us specifically mention just three.

One, as astute students of their national game, Canadians naturally appreciate the sport played at its highest possible level.

Two, Canada is not only the reigning Olympic men's hockey champion, but is the only country to have taken the gold medal twice since the NHL decided to let its players partake in the Winter Games and is in a position to become the first country to defend its title.

And three, for a vast variety of reasons (weak teams, an inability to attract the most potent unrestricted free agents and plain bad luck) Canada has been unable to win an NHL championship since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, which has had the effect of many Canadians pinning their hopes on the various incarnations of Team Canada as much as on any local or regional chance of bringing the Stanley Cup home.

The NHL commissioner says it is "a balancing act" that the league and the players' association "are going to have to take a good hard look" before deciding on Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

"Obviously," he said, "there are some benefits to going to the Olympics, and, obviously, there are some detriments. And the benefits and detriments are a function of where the Olympics are being played. And there are security concerns, particularly after recent events in Russia. … It's something we're going to have to take into account as well."

For what it's worth, here is how the one asking the question interpreted this: The NHL is not amused by the prospects of Sochi. And it goes far beyond the concerns for security.

It involves an impossible schedule for prime-time television. It involves shutting down the league for two weeks in the middle of the season (something dreaded by team and rink owners). And, so far, there is no financial cut for the league in a tournament in which many, many millions of dollars are involved in broadcast rights, ticket purchases and merchandise sales.

On this basis, a "No" would be a fair guess to the 2014 Olympics.

There are, however, mitigating factors.

One is the National Hockey League Players' Association, which represents hundreds of men who dream of playing for their countries. Another is Alexander Ovechkin, the game's second-most important face, who has already said he will play for Russia regardless of what the NHL wishes. (If Canada's Sidney Crosby, the game's most-important face, decides to use his new-found voice to echo Ovechkin, the NHL will have to listen to its star players.)

A third may well be Canada itself. In talking of the possibility of the league one day returning to Quebec City and Winnipeg, Bettman said: "Canada is the heart and soul of the game, and this game is too important to Canada."

While many will doubt the sincerity of such rhetoric, Bettman added that when he came to the job in 1993 - Canada's last Stanley Cup, remember? - he arrived with the belief that: "If we couldn't be strong in Canada, we can't be strong anywhere."

He even said that, in his opinion, the importance of baseball and football to Americans "pales in comparison" to what hockey means to Canadians.

It's unlikely even a face-painted Team Canada fan would voice such a thought - just imagine four-down football in the Summer Games - but it may be that it takes an outsider to see what how much a game means to a certain country.

And if so, then it's fair to say the NHL would be alienating Canada at its peril if it were to pass on the 2014 Olympics.

It doesn't take "a good hard look" to see that far into the future.

 

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