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Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: February 11, 6:32 AM ET
What is NHL's Olympic future?

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

In a matter of days, some $3.2 billion worth of NHL contracts will step onto the ice at the spectacular new arenas in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics.

The commitment of the National Hockey League and its players to this process, the commitment to take part in what looms at the outset as one of the most controversial Olympic Games in history, is staggering to say the least.

Against a backdrop of half-finished hotels and packs of stray dogs and human rights issues and bloated costs and environmental concerns, the eternal NHL question looms larger than ever before: What are we doing here?

It's a question that has many answers, but no single one that ever approaches being satisfactory or all-encompassing. That's because the Olympics, for all their foibles -- and there are many, as we've already seen before the Sochi Games formally opened -- they are shot through with the kind of emotion that connects fans and athletes in a way no other competition does.

How about this? Somewhere there's a picture of Brian Burke folding towels, taken prior to the Vancouver Olympics, a play on Burke's oft-repeated phrase that he'd fold towels if that's what it took to play a part with USA Hockey at the Olympics.

Remember when Ed Belfour was named to Canada's Olympic team in 2002 as the third goaltender behind Martin Brodeur and Curtis Joseph? Many thought Belfour, often a polarizing figure, wouldn't be a good fit -- so fiery, so competitive. He would be a disruptive force. Not so. In fact ask the coach of that team, Pat Quinn, and he'll tell you that Belfour was the ultimate teammate.

Ken Hitchcock
Four-time participant Ken Hitchcock knows firsthand how players feel about the Olympics.
Why? It's the Olympics.

We spoke to veteran referee Dan O'Halloran recently for an oral history of the 2010 gold-medal game. He talked about receiving the assignment for that game in the lobby of the officials' hotel and becoming so overwhelmed by emotion that he had to retire to his room with his wife and son to take it all in.

Why? It's the Olympics.

The USA Hockey Olympic brain trust invited former Olympians Bill Guerin and Chris Drury to speak to the invitees to August's orientation camp in Arlington, Va., to tell them what their Olympic experience meant to them. We asked Guerin afterward what he told the group, what it meant to him.

It was simple, he said. He told them it meant everything.

Ken Hitchcock will be coaching in his fourth Olympics for Canada. In some ways the Olympics are the only time the hockey players get to feel like real athletes. Pretty much shielded from the media, staying in the athletes' village, simply hanging out, focused only on their job.

"They feel like they're just an athlete of a different discipline, and I think they really love that feeling," Hitchcock said in a recent interview.

The competition, too, is different, the reaction of players to the pressure, the stage, often unpredictably unique.

"It's like playing golf in a major. You're going to see things from people both good and bad you've never seen in your life because of the stress," Hitchcock said. "I've seen some unbelievably large swings in players' personalities."

And fans get it. They are drawn to it.

"I think they understand it -- that's why they love going to the games, that's why they love watching the games," Hitchcock said. "They know this is not going to be any regular-season game. They're going to see things they've never seen before, and the stakes are so high."

Zdeno Chara was given leave by the Boston Bruins to miss the last two Bruins games before the Olympic break so he could carry his nation's flag in the opening ceremonies in Sochi. The four points at stake in those games could mean the difference between the top seed in the conference or not, perhaps even top spot in the Atlantic Division.

But for general manager Peter Chiarelli and with support of Bruins ownership, it was more important to give Chara what is essentially the opportunity of a lifetime.

"He wouldn't have brought it to me if it wasn't very important to him. He's been an organization guy first and foremost from the beginning. And he said it was very important to him," Chiarelli told ESPN.com this week. "This is a real big honor for him."

We remember talking to longtime Belarus captain Ruslan Salei at the Vancouver Games. He'd been injured and would end up playing only 14 games for Colorado that season, but he wouldn't have missed that tournament for all the world, his third Olympic tournament for his beloved country. He's gone now, perished aboard the Lokomotiv Jaroslavl team flight in the fall of 2011, and maybe that's why the memory of him talking in the mixed zone, sweat-soaked after a game, is so powerful.

Ruslan Salei
Ruslan Salei's national pride is a powerful memory of Olympic meaning.
Salei knew his team had only a slim chance at winning a medal, but he'd been part of a magical moment in 2002 when his team knocked off the powerful Swedes in a quarterfinal game, so he knew what was possible. And in the end, long shot or no shot, it didn't matter. What mattered was being there.

And for all that good stuff, the NHL and its players find themselves at an Olympic crossroads. The NHL has had a love/hate relationship with the tournament since its players first joined the competition in 1998 in Nagano. It's always been difficult if not impossible to quantify the "value" of shutting the league's doors for two to three weeks every four years to allow its most important assets to swap out one set of jerseys for another.

Sure, in a place like Vancouver, where the gold-medal game set ratings records in both Canada and the United States, it's easy to say, "Hell yes, the NHL should be there." Harder to say the same thing about Torino in 2006. Sochi? The time change makes it even more difficult.

Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider blasted the league's participation this week, saying he doesn't see any benefit to the league.

"I hate them," Snider told a group of reporters after the Flyers home game Thursday. "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," Snider added.

It's not just the closing of the NHL's doors. There have been other issues, too, such as archaic rules governing use of Olympic images that have stifled the league's ability to fully maximize the marketing of their players' participation in an event over which they have very little control.

The players' union has had issues, too, with how it's been treated over the years, and the two hockey groups joined forces to try to extract a better deal for both sides in Sochi after settling their labor dispute a little more than a year ago.

If those promises are kept, then the chances of returning again in four years go up significantly. If not, well, the equation equation dramatically.

It goes without saying that if there is some sort of event outside the hockey itself -- a terrorist attack or some other unexpected chaos -- that would almost certainly spell the end of the league's involvement with the Olympics.

Back to the issue of control, the NHL and the players are also planning to revive the moribund World Cup of Hockey tournament, likely in 2015. If it's done properly, it has the potential to become the kind of signature best-on-best tournament the original in 1996 suggested was possible. At least in terms of the competition itself.

But no matter how the NHL dresses up a World Cup of Hockey, it'll never be the Olympics. And say what you will about the Sochi Games, but there is simply nothing like the Olympics.

In the coming days we'll begin to get a sense of whether these Games will mark the end of an era for the NHL -- one filled with important, powerful memories -- or simply another grand tournament on the world's biggest stage on which to build even more memories.