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Top Shelf: Fan-friendly Olympics come at a bad time

<p>In a few days, the hockey world shifts its attention from the National Hockey League to the international tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - In a few days, the hockey world shifts its attention from the National Hockey League to the international tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Depending on your outlook, the league's hiatus is either a welcome respite from the long grind of an 82-game NHL season, or it's an unnecessary break in middle of a campaign that was just starting to heat up.

There is no question the NHL's brain trust is firmly situated in the latter camp. With the NHL generating more revenue than ever on its own, it's easy to see why it isn't a thrilling prospect for the league to see its own superstars battling it out for Olympic hockey gold when there isn't a direct financial benefit.

You might say the NHL profits from Olympic hockey because it serves a valuable purpose as free promotion for the sport. That may have been true at the 1998 Nagano Games or even four years later in Salt Lake City, but in the superstar era of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the league doesn't need an international tournament to sell its sport to the public.

The fact that much of the hockey action in Sochi will air for many North Americans in the wee small hours of the morning -- unlike the TV-friendly 2010 Games in Vancouver -- does not sweeten the pot for commissioner Gary Bettman and his underlings.

Of course, taking a hard stance and not letting NHLers represent their countries at the Winter Games could conceivably turn into a public relations nightmare for the NHL, and league officials know it. Many fans, and a great deal of the players themselves, would be upset with the league if it banned NHLers from participating at the Olympics, and it could turn ugly.

It simply would not be worth the headache for the league to place itself in the middle of the debate, especially this time around in Russia. With so many Russian players in the NHL, it'd be unwise to force guys like Ovechkin to choose between professional club and wearing his nation's colors in Sochi. In fact, Ovi already said which side he'd pick and it wasn't the Washington Capitals.

With the specter of the Kontinental Hockey League looming and always at the ready to lure Russian and European NHLers to their league, the Sochi Games is not the right time for Bettman to make a stand against the Olympics. The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on the other hand? That could be a different story altogether.

Of course, the owners of individual NHL teams are decidedly in Bettman's camp because their investments -- stars like Ovechkin and Crosby -- could get hurt at the Olympics and wind up missing time for the team that actually pays them seven figures a season.

One superstar who won't be injuring himself in Sochi is Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who did not get the clearance to represent Team Canada in Sochi due to the status of his mending right tibia.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who also happens to be the executive director of Team Canada, realizes Stamkos could help both of his clubs, but with Tampa still very much in the race for the Atlantic Division crown, it would be foolish to let him go against doctor's orders. That's especially true considering the Canadians boast the deepest pool of hockey talent in the world and are certainly capable of winning their second straight gold medal even without the unique skills of Stamkos to help them pull off the repeat.

Stamkos could be ready to go when the league returns in late February from a hiatus of a little over two weeks. The Lightning could use him then when it expects be a flat-out sprint to the postseason.

All but a few teams in either conference are still very much in the race for the playoffs and some of those clubs, like the Columbus Blue Jackets or Winnipeg Jets, are playing their best hockey of the season right as the season is about to be put on hold. It would be a shame if either of those teams come out flat after the Olympics and can't recapture the form that has so far put them in the middle of the postseason fight.

But, there is no question that what transpires during an Olympic hockey tournament is special. The idea that many hockey fans will be setting their alarms for 3 a.m. or earlier to watch Finland take on Austria in a preliminary round game may sound crazy to some, but it's what makes these events so memorable for others.

The Winter Games may not line the NHL and its team owners' pockets with cash, but they do give the people who care about hockey an opportunity to see the most recognizable faces in the sport play for the glory of their home countries.

Only the most cynical among us could find something wrong with that.

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