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Column: Will NHL be a no-show at Sochi Olympics?

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist

Sidney Crosby's overtime goal to beat the United States and win gold for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is one of the two or three most memorable moments in the history of the sport. Nearly 35 million viewers were tuned in to watch it, roughly twice the average audience for the Masters, the Daytona 500 and the NCAA basketball finale.

Yet that highlight has never been shown, even once, on a scoreboard inside a National Hockey League arena or the league's website or its TV shows - even though Crosby and then-U.S. goalie Ryan Miller are two of the NHL's biggest stars. The reason why is the beginning of the answer to a very touchy question: Will there be NHL players at the Sochi Olympics when the games begin less than a year from now?

After the NHL's second work stoppage in less than 10 years, its fans have been so thrilled to get their games back - TV ratings are up, up, up across the board - that most simply assumed the league would continue its participation in the games. Not so fast. The league met with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation members some two weeks ago, and the best thing that can be said about the talks is that all parties have described them as ''ongoing.''

Granted, the relationship got off to a rocky start at the 1998 Nagano Games, where members of Team USA threw some of the rickety furniture in their dorm room through a window, causing many to wonder whether pros used to living large would ever acclimate to the typical Olympian's Spartan lifestyle. But the pros settled in nicely after that, giving hockey some much-needed exposure on the world's biggest sporting stage and not coincidentally, adding to the IOC's coffers. And while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is still thrilled with the first part of that deal, he's increasingly uncomfortable with the second part this time around.

The NHL is the only pro league taking part in the Olympics in what constitutes the middle of its season. Compared to that, the NBA sending players to the Summer Games is practically a barnstorming tour. The NHL bundles up $2 billion worth of talent, figures out the tightest travel schedules it can come up with to minimize time away, and then keeps its fingers crossed.

Not only does the league forfeit nearly three weeks of regular-season games and the rights to replay any Olympic highlights, but if a star player gets hurt, he couldn't be treated by an NHL team doctor. He'd have to go to the same medical facility as the 50th-ranked biathlete in the world. Despite its public stance, the league is unlikely to sign the same deal it's agreed to in the past.

''We need the hockey pros and we believe they need us,'' is how longtime IOC member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway described the impasse in a telephone conversation Monday. ''We understand they sacrifice a lot, but it's the same discussion every four years. So maybe we should be used to it by now.''

IIHF president Rene Fasel has said he wants an agreement completed before the federation's World Championships in May. Fasel did not return a phone call Monday, but if he's counting on the NHL to fall in line meekly, he could be waiting a long time. Bettman defied conventional wisdom in his last negotiation with the union, canceling the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game and nearly half the regular season to wring concessions from the league's players. He's unlikely to be in a more forgiving mode, even with the notoriously imperious IOC.

As much as the Olympics lifted hockey's profile at Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver just three years ago - where Canada won the gold over the United States both times - it did very little of that at both Nagano and Turin in 2006. Not only were the finals at both those Olympics lacking in star power - 1998 featured the Czech Republic vs. Russia; 2006, Sweden vs. Finland - the games were played and televised at odd hours for North American audiences, which are the NHL's bread and butter. The Sochi Games will be nine hours ahead of the U.S. Eastern time zone.

On the plus side, NBC is the TV partner for both the NHL and the IOC, which may be the biggest reason former IOC vice president Dick Pound called it ''cosmically stupid'' for the NHL to even consider staying away. NBC has already announced it will televise every game Team USA plays live, though that seems like small consolation at the moment. Yet Bettman may not be convinced to go along unless he can extract more rights to the product and better access at the games than the NHL received in the last deal.

The IOC recognizes the value the NHL brings to the games - hockey routinely ranks among the top three sports in Olympic viewership, along with figure skating and downhill skiing. But any concessions the IOC makes to the NHL likely will end up on the wish lists of all the other pro sports already in the fold. The top league in hockey-mad Russia, the KHL, has already vowed to send its players to Sochi, but that, too, could change.

''Right now, we don't have the same problems with any other sport, only hockey,'' said Heiberg, who headed the organizing committee for the 1994 Lillehammer Games, the last Winter Games played without NHL pros.

''We're very strict about some things, maybe too strict,'' he mused, then added quickly he was not speaking on behalf of the IOC. ''I think we will find common ground.''

Maybe so, but considering the parties involved, odds that this dispute will get settled quickly, let alone amicably, are about the same as a snowball's chance in Sochi, where the average temperature in March is a relatively balmy 50 degrees.

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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