Cook: Olympic hockey is the best

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Did you see that smile on Sidney Crosby's face late Sunday afternoon? It was every bit as big and bright as the one he had when they handed him the Stanley Cup in June. Would you like to be the person to tell him he can't go to Sochi, Russia, in 2014 to defend Canada's treasured Olympic gold medal?

Good luck to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman with that.

The greatest hockey tournament in the history of the sport came to a marvelous end at the Vancouver Olympics with Canada beating the United States, 3-2, on a goal by -- who else? -- Crosby in overtime. The Kid's legend grows, doesn't it? I'm sure there have been better sporting events with a better finish over the years. Darned, though, if I can think of one at the moment.

Not to wish my life away, but I'm already counting the days until the world gathers again for the next Winter Games in Sochi.

Here's hoping Crosby and the NHL's other stars are there.

I know the arguments against it. The NHL has to shut down for two weeks during a time when it hurts the league the most -- between the Super Bowl and the start of baseball. It has millions invested in players who are at risk of injury at the Olympics. What the league gets back from participating just isn't worth it. That will be especially true with the next Games in Russia, where it is 8 hours later than here. Televising a game in the United States during prime time will mean tape-delayed action. Who wants that?

"It costs us money," Bettman has said of the Olympics. "It disrupts our season."

It is a compelling argument.

Not that the NHL players want to hear it.

"It's definitely worth it for the league to go," said Penguins veteran winger Bill Guerin, a three-time Olympian who didn't make the U.S. team this time. "It's the biggest sports stage in the world. The best athletes in the world are supposed to be there."

That seems to be the universal feeling of the players. They want to continue playing in the Olympics so much that they'll probably make the issue a big part of their next Collective Bargaining Agreement with the owners. Russian star Alex Ovechkin feels so strongly about the NHL stars participating in Sochi that he has said he will walk away from his Washington Capitals team -- if he must -- in order to do it. It's not hard to imagine the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin taking the same stance.

That, too, is a compelling argument.

I'm with the players on this one.

It's no wonder they want to keep going to the Olympics. No sport is more nationalistic than hockey. Clearly, you could see that when the great Crosby and his teammates sang the Canadian anthem after getting their gold medals. It's also why winning gold is just as meaningful to the players as winning the Stanley Cup. Please, don't ask them to choose between the two. That would be like asking a parent to pick the favorite of his or her two children. But if you think a Cup clearly is more important, you are wrong. Look at it this way: Crosby will be a hero forever in Pittsburgh because he led the Penguins to that Cup last season, but he'll be a hero forever in every corner of Canada after scoring that overtime goal to secure victory in the country's most important sport.

On Canadian ice, no less!

This is one occasion when the NHL owners need to do what's right for the players. The players aren't just their partners; they are the NHL. The league survives on its ticket-based revenue. The players are why fans pay incredibly high prices to watch the games. Closing the arenas for two weeks once every four years hardly seems like too much of a sacrifice to keep them happy.

It's not as if the NHL doesn't get anything from the Olympics. There has been much whining about how the league didn't get maximum exposure in this country from the Vancouver Games because NBC shipped out most of the hockey games -- including the U.S.-Canada game in the preliminary round -- to one of its secondary networks. But the numbers don't lie. There were 8.2 million viewers of that first U.S.-Canada game in America on cable news channel MSNBC, which was more than who watched the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in June on NBC. Surely, that number will be even greater for the fabulous game Sunday, which was on NBC.

That isn't bad exposure, if you ask me.

"It's all good here this year," Bettman acknowledged to ESPN.com, calling the hockey "spectacular."

The tough challenge for Bettman and the NHL owners is to get many of those Olympic viewers to tune back in to the NHL games on NBC and Versus. That's a much bigger problem for the league than any caused by participation in the Games. Sadly, those viewers new to hockey who do give the NHL a try won't recognize the sport. Despite Bettman's contention in Vancouver that "what you are seeing is NHL hockey," the Olympic-style brand is so much better and so much more exciting.

If Bettman really wants to help the NHL, he should make it more like the international game. Wasn't it great to watch the Olympic tournament and not see any ridiculous fighting? It should be banned by the NHL. Wasn't it fun to watch free-flowing hockey and not see the thuggery that is so much a part of the NHL game? Really, were there any cheap shots in Vancouver other than those few delivered by Russian Alexander Semin out of frustration in his team's 7-3 loss to Canada? Penalties for the gratuitous violence in the NHL should be stiffened.

Those changes would make the NHL brand a lot better.

As it is, it's a shame we have to wait four years to see a terrific sport at its very best again.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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