Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Will this be the last Olympics with NHL players?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Compared with Washington's other professional franchises, the Capitals are one happy family. They aren't facing the extreme dysfunction that surrounds the Redskins or the spate of early-season injuries that plagues the Wizards -- assuming, of course, that all is well with Alex Ovechkin. Ice, apparently, is nice. So, of course, is winning.

All the happy, however, may not last. In February, the NHL will break for two weeks to allow its top players to participate in the Olympic tournament in Vancouver. It will be the fourth Games in which NHL players will participate -- and perhaps the last.

The league is considering whether to allow its players to participate after 2010. Players are adamant about their desire to play. Owners are not happy about the sacrifice of profit and the risk to their players. Some poor King Solomon is going to have to split this baby, and no matter how you slice it, it's not going to be pretty.

The issue has been percolating for a while. It came up at the Olympic Media Summit in Chicago in September, when Team USA officials -- among them Coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke -- met with reporters.

"I think this is going to be the greatest hockey tournament in the history of the world, and that's not hyperbole," said Dave Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey. "The reason is this: three gold medal games with the NHL players, six different nations in the final. You want to talk about competitive . . . "

Add to that the fact that the host country is pretty crazy about the game, and the Vancouver tournament probably will live up to Ogrean's billing. Will it also be the last to feature the best players from the NHL?

"I know the owners have a lot of appetite to stop doing this," Burke said. "We've done it three times; the only time we got any kind of bang out of it was in Salt Lake [2002]. Nagano, Torino, we didn't get anything out of that. So there's a lot of sentiment that this should be the last Olympics that the players play.

"On the flip side of that, the NHL Players Association has made it clear it's very important to them. And I don't think we can cherry-pick when we go. We can't tell the IOC, 'We're going to go when it's in North America and we're not going to go when it's not.' That's not going to fly. So somehow it's got to be worked out."

Somehow. That's the problem. Caps owner Ted Leonsis began laying out the NHL's position with precision before I'd even finished asking the question. Shutting down operations for 14 days is costly. To make up for that time off, the league started earlier this season, and during some weeks, teams play four games instead of the more typical three. Local TV rights holders lose programming -- and of course they have no access to Olympic programming to make up for it.

"Somebody is making a lot of money around the Olympics," Leonsis said. "It's not the NHL, not the players. Just something that doesn't sit right there. The league is tremendously inconvenienced."

The NHL doesn't have the deep pockets of, say, the NBA and NFL -- or the IOC. The financial reward of the "greatest hockey tournament in the world" all goes to the Olympics. The financial risk is all borne by the league. If Ovechkin breaks a leg in Vancouver, it might cost Team Russia the gold medal -- but it could kill the Capitals' chances of making a deep run in the playoffs. Team Russia, remember, isn't paying Ovechkin's salary; the Caps are. The only entity to come out unscathed would be, as is often the case, the Olympic movement.

Leonsis also faces a somewhat unique challenge in that two of his best players -- Ovechkin and Alexander Semin -- want particularly to play in 2014, when the Games will be in Sochi in their native Russia.

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