Bob Smizik: What’s better: Gold medal or Cup?

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Seven Penguins players went off to the Olympics representing four different countries and all with high hopes. Four are coming back with medals, three with a large dose of disappointment.

Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz won gold playing for Canada with both scoring goals in the championship game Sunday against Sweden. Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maata won bronze for Finland. Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik were part of the keenly disappointing U.S. team and Evgeni Malkin the even more disappointing Russian team.

With the exception of Martin, who broke his hand at the Olympics, these players now begin to focus on and practice and play for another supremely cherished title -- the Stanley Cup.

My proposal last week that the NHL should withdraw from future Olympics was not greeted with favor by a majority of readers. Their feelings were that the players should not be deprived of a chance to compete for a gold medal, which is one of the highest honors in sports. That discussion leads to this one, which concerns just where those two famous awards stand in the eyes of readers and players.

Briefly put:

• Which award is the most prestigious?

• Which award, for a player who has neither, would be the most coveted?

Among the Penguins, only Crosby and Kunitz have won gold medals. Cup winners include those two, along with Malkin, Orpik, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis (injured). If those players were asked today which title would be their preference, the politically correct answer, and the one they’d surely give, would be the one in front of them -- the Cup.

Should they say Olympic gold, they’d not only be taking their eye of their current goal, but they’d be terribly disrespecting their teammates who have won neither.

But in any circumstance, it’s hard not to believe in their heart of hearts, the Stanley Cup is what most players want more.

Olympics hockey, as played today, is little more than all-star competition. The teams have a few practices and then play, at the most, six games. Nor should anyone think that because Canada won the gold it is the best team in the world. It is the Olympic champion, and that is not the same as being the best team in the world. The short Olympic schedule, which eventually becomes single elimination, is not a true test of the best team -- just the best team that week.

The path to a Stanley Cup title is the most arduous task in sports. It involves winning four best-of-seven series, mostly against the best teams in the world, and that after an 82-game regular season. Only football, among professional team sports, is more physically demanding than hockey and winning the Super Bowl requires only three or four games, not anywhere from 16 to 28, most of which are played a day -- not a week or two -- apart.

Part of winning a championship is the journey involved. There’s no more team-bonding journey than the one taken by the NHL champion. In comparison to winning the Stanley Cup, the Olympics gold medal is a walk in the park and no real journey at all.

Hard to believe there are many NHL players who would put their treasured Stanley Cup behind a gold medal.

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