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Updated: February 19th, 2014 7:16am
Zulgad: NHL owners' reluctance to participate in Olympics makes sense

Zulgad: NHL owners' reluctance to participate in Olympics makes sense

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

You will be hard pressed to find better hockey than what we have seen in the past week during the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The United States' 3-2 victory over the host country on Saturday morning was so entertaining that not even having to see it decided in the skills competition format of a shootout could make it disappointing.

Getting up at 6:20 a.m. on a weekend was a small price to pay.

The U.S. and Canada squads are NHL All-Star teams playing on a 200-by-100 ice surface that allows the best skaters in the world to put their skills on display. The Russians put on a clinic with their ability to control the puck and NHL players are scattered amidst several other teams.

The NHL's willingness to go on hiatus in the middle of the season once every four years since 1998 has created the ultimate showcase for the sport.

Yet, it appears more and more certain that the NHL won't shut down and allow its players to take part in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

As a hockey fan, that's sad.

But if you're the NHL, the decision to balk at having another lengthy stoppage to allow the best players to participate in the Games makes sense.

If you listen to "Mackey & Judd" on 1500 ESPN, you know that my new radio partner and I have disagreed on this subject for the past week.

The always-prepared Phil Mackey has provided evidence that when the U.S. has a big game in the Olympics that it draws significant ratings and attention to a sport that many ignore.

He is right.

NBC Sports Network had 4.1 million people tune into the U.S.-Russia game, a record number for a hockey game on the channel. There were 6.4 million watching the shootout.

The problem is what real benefit does the NHL get from this? The answer is little. Don't be confused. If you want to talk about growing hockey and getting kids interested in the sport, then the level of play at the Olympics is important and likely has an impact.

That's not what we're talking about here.

The NHL's 17-day break is scheduled to end Feb. 25. The best-case scenario for the league, and commissioner Gary Bettman, would be to have the viewers who have been glued to their televisions watching decide that they can't get enough and that NHL games are their next step.

But that isn't going to happen.

The NHL's first game back will feature Carolina and Buffalo. How long do you think it will take the casual hockey fan to realize the difference between the U.S. and Russia and the Hurricanes and Sabres?

Three minutes? Five minutes? One period? Click.

This is coming from someone who grew up a diehard fan of the sport and counts "Hockey Night in Canada" as one of his favorite shows. In no way is this bashing hockey, but it is reality.

You could argue that the NHL postseason is among the best in pro sports, but the playoffs don't start until April and by that time it likely will be too late. Olympic fever will be long gone and so will many of the hockey converts.

Hockey isn't the only sport that gets a boost in the Olympics only to be ignored by the same folks who embraced it for a few weeks. Think of how many viewers will watch the various events in these Games and then forgot about those sports until the next Olympics.

Meanwhile, NHL owners are shutting down their arenas, watching many of their employees go on a mid-season vacation and seeing their star employees risk injury in the name of representing not the team that pays them but rather their country.

Perhaps owners could be convinced that this still makes sense when the Olympics are held in North America. But with a 10-hour time difference between Sochi and Minnesota, many games are being played in the middle of the night or early in the morning. That time difference increases to 13 hours for 2018.

All of this factors into their thinking.

Wild owner Craig Leipold, whose team will return to action on Feb. 27 at Edmonton, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week that he isn't happy about shutting down for two-plus weeks.

"To have our players over in Russia right now, under the responsibility of a coach in a system that I don't have any input in, and (Wild general manager) Chuck (Fletcher) doesn't have any input in, is a little concerning to us," Leipold said. "It's a tough thing to shut the league down in the middle of our season and let our marquee players go over to Russia to participate in the games. Our hope, obviously, is that they don't get injured."

The Detroit Red Wings weren't so lucky on this front.

Captain Henrik Zetterberg, a member of Team Sweden, had to pull out of the Olympics after he had a herniated disk flare up while in Sochi. He could need surgery.

"I hate them," Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider told the Associated Press when asked about the NHL taking part in the Olympic Games. "It's ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous. I don't care if it was in Philadelphia, I wouldn't want to break up the league.

"I think it's ridiculous to take three weeks off, or however long it is, in the middle of the season. It screws up everything. .. How can anybody be happy breaking up their season. No other league does it, why should we? There's no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives."

If you're a hockey fan who is in favor of seeing the game played at its highest level you disagree with Snider. But taken from the point of view of an NHL owner, it's hard to find fault with his views.

The NBA allows its players to participate in the Olympics, but that sport is part of the Summer Games. Baseball never shut down when that sport was in the Summer Games and the World Baseball Classic takes place before the season.

There was recent talk by Bettman about bringing back the World Cup of Hockey, which was held in 1996 and 2004 and is played before the NHL season. That could mean the end of Olympic participation.

The interesting factor in this will be the desire of players to take part in the Olympics going forward. Owners might not like shutting down, but the players almost certainly feel very differently considering the pride they get from competing for their country.

"I don't want to get into what the pros and cons are for participating," Bettman said in Sochi. "Everybody knows them, and they've been debated ad nauseam. We are here because we think it's great to be here today at this tournament. What comes next we'll all have to figure out, as we've done each of the other times that the NHL players have participated."

If Bettman lets his owners make that decision, odds are this will be the last time we'll see NHL players in the Olympics.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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