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Canada's Sidney Crosby celebrates with teammates Scott Niedermayer (L) and Drew Doughty after scoring the game winning goal against the U.S. during overtime in their men's ice hockey gold medal game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 28, 2010. (TODD KOROL)
Canada's Sidney Crosby celebrates with teammates Scott Niedermayer (L) and Drew Doughty after scoring the game winning goal against the U.S. during overtime in their men's ice hockey gold medal game at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 28, 2010. (TODD KOROL)

David Shoalts

Hockey's choice: Olympics or World Cup? Add to ...

If, despite the odds, the NHL, Hockey Canada and International Ice Hockey Federation can get on the same page regarding the Winter Olympics and World Cup of Hockey, then next week's blatherfest in Toronto - also known as the World Hockey Summit - might just be worth something after all.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is as enthusiastic about his league's participation in the 2014 Sochi Games as he is about seeing the NHL Players' Association get back on its feet. Bettman will tell you playing games in the Russian time zones will not help the NHL sell itself to the world, but there are other reasons for his reluctance.

The biggest problem is the NHL does not have any control over the competition at the Games. Management and players have to dance to the tune of the International Olympic Committee, which rarely makes its decisions based on the best way to market the NHL's version of hockey. Also, most of the NHL's owners - that would be the American ones - hate closing their doors for more than two weeks in February every four years. They see no return for their largesse, even though hockey was a smash hit in the Winter Games held in North America in 2002 and 2010.

Then again, NHL owners as a group are not known for their vision. After they were dragged into the 1998 Nagano Games and their rinks were not sold out for the rest of the regular season once the international competition was over, they collectively shrugged and said: "See, it wasn't worth it." Not even the successes in Salt Lake City and Vancouver have done much to change their minds.

However, selling yourself to an indifferent market like the United States takes more than a one-time shot. The television ratings in Vancouver were proof Americans will watch hockey, and getting a chance to show your wares on a world stage should never be considered a bad thing (although what the NHL really needs is the United States to win the men's gold medal).

First, though, the NHL has to commit to the Games for the long term. It should also decide what it is going to do with the World Cup of Hockey - a competition that appears, it seems, only when the league feels like it.

Ideally, either the Olympics or the World Cup should be chosen as the sport's major international competition.

Originally, there was a plan to have the World Cup every four years in between Olympics, so there would be a best-versus-best international competition every two years. But that could result in what we saw in the 1980s, with the Canada Cups and the world championships - international hockey burnout for the players.

The right choice would seem to be the Olympics, since the players and the fans love it.

This does not mean anyone should expect any sort of Olympic commitment to come out of next week's summit. For one thing, IIHF president René Fasel appears to have no stomach for twisting Bettman's arm. He seems more interested in kissing up than in pushing him to do the right thing.

The NHL can brag all it wants about sending six teams to Europe in October to play some preseason games and open the 2010-11 regular season. But playing a few exhibitions (even if a few are disguised as regular-season games) cannot compare to the Olympics when it comes to selling your sport in the long run.

This is going to be a collective-bargaining issue in a couple of years, not something that will be settled in an off-season chinwag. Both management and labour have to sign off on Olympic participation.

Bettman will continue his posturing about the Olympics until the next round of collective bargaining begins. Then, when he and the owners are trying to impose an even more restrictive salary cap on the players, Bettman will use participation in the Games as a bargaining chip.

In the meantime, it would be nice if the parties could start sorting out next week just which of these international competitions they would like to keep.

 

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