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HOCKEY SUMMIT: PART 4

International stage comes with a price tag Add to ...

For a generation of Canadian hockey fans, "Gretzky to Lemieux" conjures an image of one of the great pre-Olympic events: the 1987 Canada Cup, a best-of-three series against what was then known as the Soviet Union.

All three matches ended in 6-5 scores, the last one going Canada's way on an 11th-hour goal by arguably its two greatest players in history.

Whatever happened to the Canada Cup, and to its successor, the World Cup, which in 1996 crowned the United States as champions in the second most important victory in its history after the 1980 Miracle On Ice?

Both tournaments were, for a time, played every four years before the start of the NHL season and have featured some of the most intriguing hockey in history. But when the NHL decided to go to the Olympics in 1998, the World Cup essentially was sacrificed.

The last one was played in 2004, immediately before a year-long lockout, and has been in hiatus ever since. The league now wants to resurrect the event, no matter what happens to NHL Olympic participation.

One of the main reasons the league is gung-ho on the one international event and not the other comes down to the key difference between the two tournaments.

The NHL has a say in running the World Cup and takes in a big share of the profits.

With the Olympics, it doesn't.

There are other concerns, too, that have NHL commissioner Gary Bettman officially uncommitted to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. For one, he is unconvinced that the rewards are worth the risks in terms of shutting down the NHL for a 15- to 18-day period in the middle of the season.

And unlike Vancouver, where travel was relatively easy to deal with, Sochi will represent a trip around the world.

That's why, despite spectacular television numbers and publicity after the 2010 Games, Bettman and Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, have been fencing publicly over this issue for two years.

When asked if he sensed any softening of the NHL's position with regard to Olympic participation or if he would use next week's World Hockey Summit as an opportunity to twist Bettman's arm about 2014, Fasel offered an olive branch.

"The interruption of the NHL for more than two weeks requires not inconsiderable sacrifice and we value the NHL's effort," Fasel said. "We do not want to put any of the stakeholders vital for the success of an Olympic hockey tournament under pressure. If our partners participate, they have to do so because they themselves see the benefits in their participation because they themselves recognize the invaluable opportunity of being at the Olympic Games."

Those "benefits," however, are not always tangible. Those critical of Olympic participation argue that, despite shutting down its season for weeks and generating massive ratings and revenues, the NHL is left in the cold, both in terms of having a say in the organization of the Games and in profit sharing.

"While we understand players seem overwhelmingly supportive of participating in Sochi and their views will obviously be a relevant factor in what we decide to do, there are a whole broader range of issues and concerns that need to be considered and that too often receive short shrift from people who want us to commit," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, one of seven panelists who will discuss the Global Event Agenda at the summit on Wednesday.

"We need to make the best decision for the NHL," Daly said. "We haven't concluded at this point that the best decision for all our relevant constituencies and interests is to go."

Participation in the Olympics also isn't simply an owner-v.-player issue like so many others in the game. When Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said last September he would play in Sochi even if he faced an NHL suspension, he did so with the backing of owner Ted Leonsis, who said he would "probably fly him over myself" if the league decides against playing in the Games.

On the players' side, high-profile agent Don Meehan said he can understand where the league is coming from in terms of wanting a better arrangement with the International Olympic Committee - and perhaps outright compensation - in exchange for participating in the Games.

"I don't think the IOC in any way attempts to accommodate the league for what it does," Meehan said. "The league takes dictation from these people. … [There should be]some degree of co-operation or some assessment of value for what the league provides. And I believe there's none."

Even if the NHL does relent and go to Sochi, there could still be room to resurrect the World Cup, according to Brendan Shanahan, the league's vice-president of hockey and business development, who believes there is an "appetite" to bring the tournament back.

The primary issue against adding another major event to the international playing calendar is burnout - at what point do the demands on elite players become too great? When the call goes out to hockey's who's who, it generally focuses on a small group of players who are asked to participate in event after event.

While league bigwigs such as Shanahan and Daly say there's a bright future for the World Cup, others aren't so sure.

"At times there's too much," Meehan said. "The season is long, the playoffs are long, the Olympics are every four years, there's a world championship every year. How much of this do you really need? It's simply too much, it's asking players to do too much."





 

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