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It could be NHLers' last Olympics

High costs will threaten future participation

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Rick Nash, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Roberto Luongo and Sidney Crosby address the media at a team orientation camp in Calgary on Sunday.

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Rick Nash, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Roberto Luongo and Sidney Crosby address the media at a team orientation camp in Calgary on Sunday.

CALGARY -- If you like your Olympic hockey with NHL players it might be prudent to get your fill in 2014. It could be your last opportunity for some time.

Consider it would have cost Hockey Canada over $1 million just to insure players to take part in practices here this weekend and future NHL participation in the Olympics is growing more and more unlikely.

Not half a day into the beginning of an orientation camp for NHLers hoping to play for Canada, and whispering this latest era of NHL participation is near an end was growing louder.

"They won't be going to Korea," was a common refrain among media in Calgary for Hockey Canada's orientation camp, featuring 47 Canadian-born NHLers, along with a management team and coaching group largely culled from NHL staffs.

Team Canada simply chose to not go on the ice rather than fork over the cash to insure a few light skates. That doesn't bode well for future NHL participation.

The International Olympic Committee will pay in the neighbourhood of $8 million to insure NHLers playing in Sochi, a price tag that was a major sticking point in negotiations.

The NHL wants to revive the World Cup, playing every second year, and the ever-increasing cost of insurance will be a convenient excuse if and when the league makes its move to bow out of the Olympics.

Control over broadcast schedules, revenue, game sites and costs make the World Cup concept far more attractive to the NHL and its owners. Playing late in the summer and not interrupting the NHL season is also a benefit to the league.

NHL owners told Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr they had no interest in paying the freight to interrupt their NHL lives to take part in the Olympics. The IOC certainly didn't like taking on that bill, but faced with watering down its marquee event, it was forced to eat the cost.

But the IOC doesn't like being dictated to, and this is an issue that will be revisited.

The cost will only rise in the future and NHL ownership's stance will only harden.

Negotiations between the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and IOC were difficult enough for the games in Sochi, Russia and it was a one-time deal, which does not include an option for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The rising salaries of NHL players and the increasing incidence of concussion has heightened the gamble for insurers and they've passed that risk on in the form of higher policy costs.

"When you look at the insurance, it's not for Hockey Canada to control, as it's all about salaries," said Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson. "When you look at salaries and what they were in 2002 compared to what they will be in 2014, the 47 players here will have over $1.5 billion remaining on their contracts. Insurance is always going to be an issue."

Pressure on Canadian players to make this team and then convert that presence into a gold medal is already high. But it will be nothing compared to the expectations players place on this opportunity if they realize it's their last crack at an Olympic medal.

Winning the World Cup would be nice and all, but it doesn't compare to a gold medal from the Olympics. If Sidney Crosby is of the mind this is his last chance to grab gold, there will be extra motivation.

For players on the outside right now, such as Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane, the prospect of never being an Olympian will be haunting. Kane and others like him will want to do anything and everything to try and get GM Steve Yzerman's attention once the season begins.

If this is indeed the last time NHLers are going to play in the Olympics, at least for a few quadrennials, the drama will thicken on all sorts of fronts.

It may spell for less Olympic excitement in the long run, but the short term could be absolutely riveting.

Let the games begin.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2013 C1

History

Updated on Monday, August 26, 2013 at 7:36 AM CDT: Adds art, graphic.

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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