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Bettman: Olympic questions require answers

by Shawn P. Roarke
TORONTO -- There is little question the 2010 Vancouver Olympics were a success on every level.

"People saw the purest form of sport you can see," John Furlong, the head of the Vancouver Olympic Committee, said Wednesday as he opened the third day of the Molson World Hockey Summit. "It was magic."

The hockey tournament, which ended with the host nation winning the gold medal in overtime against the United States, provided enough dramatics and memories to last a lifetime.

The gold-medal game alone was watched by 114 million people around the globe and 86 percent of the Canadian population watched some part of that championship game, which ended on an overtime goal off the stick of Sidney Crosby, Canada's most iconic player.

"Vancouver was great and anybody who was in Vancouver knew it was great," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during a question-and-answer session that followed the Olympic presentation. "It was terrific hockey, much akin to what you will see in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- particularly in a Game 7 in any of the rounds."

But the Vancouver experience also raised some serious questions that the NHL wants answered before the League commits to going to the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia.

"First of all, going to the Olympics for us is a mixed bag," Bettman said. "It can be very, very good, but even when it is very, very good, there are some issues and problems that are attendant to that."

Among those problems are scheduling conflicts, the health of players involved in the Olympic tournament, and the impact the Olympic break has on the NHL product. For those reasons, the NHL has not committed to sending its players to Sochi, despite allowing players to take part in each of the past four Olympic tournaments.

But Bettman insists the lack of a commitment at this point in time does not mean that the NHL is uninterested in continuing a tradition that began with the Nagano Olympics in 1998.

"It fascinates me to hear and see all of the commentary that says as a first principle that I am against going to the Olympics," Bettman said. "We've gone to the last four Olympics and if somebody has to take the blame or the credit for that, it's me. The commotion -- if you will, the elephant in the room -- is simply that we haven't made a decision yet and I don't think the fact that we haven't made a decision yet is that big a deal."

For many at Wednesday's summit, it is a big deal for the simple reason that emotions about the Olympics run high and everyone has a passionate stance on the topic.

Several panelists -- including current players Jamie Langenbrunner of the New Jersey Devils and Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators and Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov, who is now head of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League  -- made impassioned pleas for the NHL to continue its presence in the Olympics.

"There are hurdles we need to get by, but the Olympics are bigger than that," said Alfredsson, who won gold with Sweden in 2006 and also played in Vancouver.

Langenbrunner, who played for the United States in 1998 and won silver in 2010, argued that the best-on-best format is owed to the game's fans as a reward for the support they provide to the sport. But those who will decide the format of the 2014 Olympic tournament -- be it from the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation or the International Olympic Committee -- cannot be ruled by emotion, according to Bettman.

"Raising this to an emotional level -- rhetoric publicly and privately -- that isn't going to get this done," Bettman said. "When the Board gets together trying to deal with this issue, it is going to be based on a very reasoned analysis that goes to what the issues are both for the Olympics and for the NHL."

That reasoned analysis will require decision-makers to bridge the natural divide between logic and passion.

Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland admits he is torn as he looks at the issue, especially after helping Canada win a gold medal as a member of GM Steve Yzerman's staff in Vancouver last February.
"Vancouver was great and anybody who was in Vancouver knew it was great.  It was terrific hockey, much akin to what you will see in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- particularly in a Game 7 in any of the rounds." -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

"From an emotional side, I want to be in the Olympics," said Holland, who also was a panelist in Wednesday's morning session. "But from a business side, there is more to it than just saying, 'Oh yeah, I want to be in the Olympics.' I think there are issues that need to be addressed."

Brian Burke, the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, served as Team USA's general manager in Vancouver. He is among the most ardent supporters of international hockey in the U.S., but he stressed Wednesday that the NHL's involvement in the Olympics is a complex issue that requires deliberate examination and measured action.

"It's very simple to say we should send our best players, but it is not that simple," said Burke, who is a delegate at this week's summit. "There are legitimate reasons to not go and you have to see how they balance out against the reasons to go, which are also considerable."

And that is exactly what Bettman said he believes the NHL will do as it tries to reach a consensus about 2014.

"Ultimately, when we focus on -- at the right time -- the decision-making process and what the issues are and how the IOC and the IIHF are prepared to address those issues, the Board will reason together and make an informed decision and we'll see where we go from there."

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