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John Tavares could be the poster boy for the NHL's decision to pull out of the Olympics

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  February 20, 2014 09:58 AM

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Damn it. Now the NHL has its built-in excuse not to return to the Olympics in 2018.

Maybe if Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, or Zdeno Chara went down in Sochi we’d feel differently about it, but after watching the past week’s thrilling brand of Olympic hockey, the bottom line is that bad news for the New York Islanders shouldn’t be bad news for the rest of us.

Islanders captain John Tavares will miss the rest of the Olympics – not to mention the NHL regular season – after the Canadian forward suffered a torn MCL and meniscus during a collision with Latvia defenseman Arturs Kulda during the second period of Wednesday’s 2-1 win for Team Canada. Tavares’ 24 goals and 66 assists both lead the Islanders, who, with 52 points on the season, trail only the Sabres and the Panthers for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference.

Losing Tavares means little more than draft position for the Islanders, but it could have serious ramifications on what the league decides for the Olympics in South Korea in 2018, something the NHL hopes to have wrapped up over the next six months. To deny the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics has been beneficial is foolhardy. Despite the embarrassment of Jeremy Roenick and company’s initial American foray at Nagano in 1998, the Olympic hockey tournament has never been more exciting or captivating than it’s been since the pros played under the flame. The league has benefited greatly as well over the past 16 years, growing to 30 teams (foolhardily, but nevertheless), has seen household names arise from guys like Zach Parise and TJ Oshie, like only Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione had done before them, and has delivered a handful of the most exciting hockey games ever, including Saturday’s Team USA shootout win over Russia, 2010’s epic gold medal game, and, potentially, Friday’s rematch between Canada and the United States.

The players are passionate about playing for their countries. The NHL gets its product on a global scale that dwarfs any continued ignorance by ESPN. Casual hockey fans get sucked in, creating new revenue avenues for the NHL. How many Americans are walking around with “Oshie” jerseys this week, the factory tag just barely plucked from the stitching? How many kids re-enacted the shootout over the weekend, pretending they were the St. Louis Blues forward in the way backyard Wiffle ball experts buckle in as David Ortiz with the season on the line?

But having Gary Bettman in the crosshairs of making the right call is akin to asking your dog for career advice. Many of the owners hate the two-week break that the league has to endure for a handful of its players and personnel. They are, after all, still paying their salaries while they gallivant overseas with no immediate benefit, the only thing that matters to the Jeremy Jacobses of the league. After the Tavares injury, you can bet Islanders owner Charles Wang will have some negative comments to go in line with what Flyers owner Ed Snider had to say earlier this month.

“I haven’t taken a poll, but how can anyone be happy breaking up your season?” Snider asked. “No other league does it. Why should we?

“There’s no benefit to it whatsoever. If anything, I only see negatives. The players want to play and the players’ association has a lot to say about it. As an owner, I think it’s ridiculous.

Bettman will no doubt be in the pockets of the owners, but in a wacky twist of convoluted fate, player representative Donald Fehr could be a white knight when the debate heats up. Fehr said that his decision will be made only after he gets feelers from every player about the benefits of playing in the Olympics. Then we should have a nice tug-of-war between the association and the league, something we haven’t had for 13 whole months now.

Bottom line though: Saturday’s USA-Russia showdown recorded 4.1 million viewers for NBC Sports Network, the most to ever watch a hockey game on the channel. The previous was 4 million last June 17 during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals between Boston and Chicago. No, those aren’t even preseason football numbers, but to expect them to be at that level is a little like telling yourself HBO’s “Girls” isn’t among the worst shows of the past decade.

This debate might have been so much juicier had it been a Bruin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, or Phil Kessel who had gone down. An Islander? A team going nowhere is going to play a major role in the NHL not participating in 2018? Yuck.

Enjoy Friday. Enjoy Sunday. It’s probably the last you’ll see of Olympic hockey as we’ve come to know it over the past five Olympics.

In retrospect, Germany, which did not qualify for the Olympics hockey tournament, would have liked to have had Dennis Seidenberg on its team, had the Bruins defenseman not torn his ACL and MCL against the Calgary Flames in January, an injury that just as well could have happened in Sochi, as could Tavares’ in the first NHL game for the Islanders after the break.

But NHL owners don’t see the colors of the flags during the Olympics. Their eyes are still focused on green, and even though their participation on the worldwide stage may have long-term financial benefits, the immediate risks provide a more compelling argument for the owners protecting their investments, while the good for the game gets brushed aside to be a memorable footnote in Olympic history.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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