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Tim Cowlishaw: Don’t shut down NHL for the Winter Olympics

By Tim Cowlishaw Dallas Morning News (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:02 PM

You can count your lucky stars that the Dallas Stars were lucky to escape the Sochi Olympics in one piece. It wasn’t that way for everyone.

To understand that, all you had to do was watch Canada celebrating its 3-0 gold medal win over Sweden early Sunday. There was Jamie Benn, the star of Canada’s 1-0 win over Team USA in the semifinals, hugging his Stars coach, Lindy Ruff (an assistant for Canada), at center ice.

And right next to them was John Tavares, walking slowly around the ice in street shoes, slacks and his Canada jersey, the last one he will wear this season. The New York Islanders’ best player and the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft is out for the season with a knee injury suffered in Russia.

But it’s the go-nowhere Islanders, so who cares, right?

Well, the New York Rangers lost leading scorer Mats Zuccarello for about a month. He was injured playing for a Norway team that had a slightly better chance of leaving Russia with a medal than I did.

How about Detroit? The Red Wings sent the most players of any Eastern Conference team —  certainly way more than most of the teams they’re competing with for the final playoff spot —  and saw Henrik Zetterberg, one of the game’s top all-around players, come home to face back surgery.

Now it’s true Zetterberg missed games with back problems already this season for Detroit. However, I think it’s fair to ask why he even made the long flight to Russia to lead the Swedish team under these risky conditions. He may miss the rest of the season.

I didn’t think the NHL players should go before the Games were played. I don’t think the NHL players should go to Korea in four years. Yes, I know I’m in the minority here, and I have no problem with it.

If you think the flag-waving aspect of these games constitutes some sort of patriotism, you might want to think deeper on that subject.

I grow weary of hearing that “the players love to go.” I think young players love it the most, which is why I’d be excited to see the “Under 23” teams competing, showcasing the future stars of the game instead of shutting the NHL doors for 16 days just when things are getting good.

Beyond that, the players may love it, but Sweden’s paying Zetterberg nothing and the Red Wings are paying him $7.75 million this season. When does that issue come into play when we’re discussing right and wrong here?

I think the players would love to play in a hockey World Cup in September as well, an event that the powers of the game could actually control, allowing the games to be shown live in prime time. In the Winter Games, hockey will always be the ugly stepchild, relegated to cable channels at odd times of the morning.

NBC analyst Ed Olczyk, the former player and coach, suggested hockey move to the Summer Games, which seemed to make sense for about 15 minutes before you thought about ice rinks in Brazil and an even lower rung on the Olympic pecking order.

The reality is this topic will generate considerable discussion for the next few years. And then the NHL will say, OK, let’s give it one more try in Korea. Apparently not until Sidney Crosby tears up a knee will the unbalanced risk-reward factor at play here get any real consideration.

Tavares tearing up a knee and Zetterberg injuring his back won’t be enough, it seems.

So, as I said, enjoy the fact that Benn got a gold medal and raised his profile in these Games. Be happy that goaltender Kari Lehtonen was not overly stressed, filling in for Boston’s Tuukka Rask in Finland’s 2-1 semifinal loss to Sweden. And it’s great that 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin scored a breakaway goal for a Russian team that, for the host country, was the disappointment of the Games.

Yes, good things happened for Dallas. And the NHL’s participation in the last five Olympics has rendered many good moments. If that weren’t the case, the decision to stop giving in to Olympic pressure would be simple.

But it no longer makes sense to shut down a successful league, one that is thriving compared with the NHL of 1998 when this participation began. I mean, basketball is a winter sport, too. Explain to me why the NBA at the height of its season doesn’t shut down for three weeks to accommodate the Winter Olympics. Or why, when baseball was an Olympic sport, the major leagues didn’t shut down for three weeks in the summer.

Of course you can’t. Those would be crazy things to do, wouldn’t they?

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