NHL would be wise to keep Olympic participation alive

Lightning captain Martin St. Louis helped Canada to a gold medal in Sochi.

Scott Rovak/Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — Memo to the NHL: Don’t mess up a good thing.

Enjoy the Olympics. Embrace them. Make participation a date again.

Why?

Why not?

Has there been a better commercial for the NHL throughout the past four years? The league is ready to sprint out of its Sochi break, and if you can’t sense the momentum, well, you paid too much attention to the ice dancing.

"The tournament wouldn’t be as exciting as it is, for sure," Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas, who represented the Czech Republic in Russia, said of NHL players possibly missing the 2018 Pyeongchang games. "The top three, four teams — maybe more than that — most of them (players) are from the NHL. It would definitely be a loss for the national teams."

The Canadians barely had enough time to shine their gold medals before an old debate rose from the ashes below the snuffed Olympic flame: Do NHL players belong in the games? Should the league shut down — the break was 16 days this month — so that Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Quick and other elites can serve as sub-freezing world ambassadors?

Yes. Yes.

Why are these questions?

They are for a reason, of course. Quite a few, in fact. And one symbol binds them all: $$$.

Some owners are iffy that the Olympic return falls short of the risk of allowing their best assets to tempt injury. The concern is legitimate after seeing someone like New York Islanders captain John Tavares lost for the year because he tore the MCL and meniscus in his left knee in Canada’s victory over Latvia.

Delayed return

Recently, Islanders general manager Garth Snow fumed to New York’s Newsday, asking, "Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season ticket holders now?" Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider even dropped the "H" word and said via The Hockey News, in offering his affection to the grand old games, "I hate them. It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous."

Sorry, wrong.

The NHL, which began sending players to the Olympics in 1998, needs to do the same in four years. Then four years after that. And on. And on. And on.

Enjoy the stage. Embrace the buzz. Channel the energy.

"I think it wouldn’t be the Olympic games if there wouldn’t be NHL players," said Lightning goaltender prospect Kristers Gudlevskis, who had a show-stopping 55 saves for Latvia in the loss to Canada. "If you put all the world’s best players (together), NHL has the best players in the world."

What if the Olympics didn’t have the world’s best players anymore?

"I think it wouldn’t be that quality that they had in Sochi and past Olympics," said Lightning winger Ondrej Palat, who represented the Czech Republic. "I think it would be pretty bad for fans. They wouldn’t see the biggest stars from the NHL. It wouldn’t be good."

Listen to the men who lived the tournament. Sure, not all games in Sochi were winners. No one can debate the "drama" of the United States’ 7-1 victory over Slovakia or the "excitement" of Canada’s 6-0 snoozer over Austria.

There were duds among the diamonds. Not all of them can be jewels.

But when the play shined, yes, it was bright.

There was T.J. Oshie’s ascension into American hockey lore with his shootout magic in a victory over Russia under Vladimir Putin’s icy gaze. There was Finland’s tough-but-tactical approach on its way to winning a bronze medal. There was the goaltending clinic put on by Quick and Carey Price — 67 saves in all — during Canada’s victory over the United States in the semifinals.

What about any of this isn’t worth keeping? Why give back it all?

"I’ll just say two words: It’s ‘T.J. Oshie,’ " Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "This is in all seriousness, nobody knew who that guy was except for probably a few people in the league and some people in St. Louis and in Fargo, North Dakota, and where he went to college. Now, he’s a household name. Any time you can go to an event and the President of the United States tweets you, I think you’re doing something pretty good for the sport."

That’s right, the NHL’s stars made President Obama a follower. He placed aside the basketball fandom — and a few other important matters — to tap out a tweet on the official White House feed after the United States’ instant classic over Russia:

See that, NHL? The league moved a needle in Sochi, one felt throughout the world’s most famous halls. The right and only thing to do would be to make this dance a four-year date.

An Olympic decision by the NHL and NHL players could come in the next six months. Know the risks. Respect the caution.

But when was timidity reason enough to end something great?

Never.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.