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Hockey Notes

Ringing question

League, players split on Olympics

By Kevin Paul Dupont
August 23, 2009

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Here in the dog days of summer, with winter storms and chilly rinks evil intruders in our consciousness, the Winter Olympics of 2010 seem far more distant than a six-month fast-forward through the calendar. But the Games will be in Vancouver before we know it . . . and then what?

The National Hockey League, in views expressed regularly by commissioner Gary Bettman and Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the Board of Governors, ain’t all that hip on the five-ring circus.

NHLers first participated in the Games en masse in 1998 at Nagano and subsequently played at Salt Lake City (2002) and Torino (’06). They’ll be in Vancouver, but as of today, Bettman, Jacobs, et al don’t see the point of playing in 2014 (Sochi, Russia) or perhaps ever again.

“There is no other business in the world that shuts their doors for 2 1/2 weeks in the middle of the season,’’ said Brian Burke, the Maple Leafs general manager and GM of the US squad for Vancouver. “I mean, we have gotten very little benefit from this tournament when it is not in North America. And I realize we can’t go only when it’s in North America - the IOC is not going to put up with that. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last Olympics that NHL players participate in.’’

However, Burke acknowledged, that view is the opposite of the one held by the players, who aspire to represent their countries. The rank-and-file, even the Americans, who have not won the tournament since 1980, love the competition and spirit of the Games.

No Sochi? Well, between 2010 and 2014, the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is due to expire, and it’s a virtual certainty that Players Association executive director Paul Kelly will want to preserve the language that gets his guys in the Games.

“We have 30 percent of our players from all across Europe and Russia,’’ noted Kelly. “The World Championships and Olympics mean a great deal to these players. The players overwhelmingly support continued participation in the Olympics, regardless of issues about time zones, locations, and whether it is in Russia or someplace else.’’

The league feels it loses marketing momentum and its place in a very crowded professional sports marketplace with the two-week hiatus. There is also the risk of injury to the working help, along with the potential for non-Olympic participants to depart for warmer climes and then, upon returning to work, be slow to regenerate their competitive juices (too much piña colada mix and a lot of sun can do that).

The Lords of the Boards also wonder whether their fan base is paying attention to the Games and making the hoped-for crossover to the NHL shield.

“I think we got a lot of pop out of Salt Lake, given that the Games were in prime time and there was a lot of media coverage that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,’’ mused Burke. “When they are in Sochi, or when they were in Nagano or Torino, no, I don’t think we got any pop out of it at all.’’

In the salary-capped, shared-revenue system of the current CBA, it is equally important to the players to keep the NHL financial pipeline primed and the fan base engaged (i.e. spending). Kelly is well aware of that. But he also has a very young, eager, and proud rank-and-file, some of whom never will get a chance to get to Olympus even with the doors still open.

“I understand the practical concerns of the league,’’ he said. “They are legitimate. I think we need to talk through them.

“We are not going to solve this between now and Vancouver. I think the league is going to wait and see what kind of experience we have in Vancouver, what kind of buzz is created around the sport.

“If you have a tremendous tournament, a great gold medal game, if your [TV] ratings are off the chart, if you create an international buzz about the sport, then I think it changes the dialogue. I think the NHL has to take a fresh look at this question.

“So at this point we are not going to push the issue. We will wait and see how Vancouver unfolds and then hopefully they will see it our way.’’

Options here and there for Chelios

Chris Chelios, looking fit, tanned, and not day over 45 - he will be 47 in January - said last week during the Team USA orientation camp in Woodridge, Ill., that he definitely will be playing to start the 2009-10 season. However, he doesn’t know if it will be one of the NHL’s Original 30, or a club in the minor leagues, or perhaps even in Russia.

“I’ve talked to two clubs over there,’’ said the three-time Stanley Cup-winning blue liner. “One of them is Barry Smith’s club [St. Petersburg], and I’m not sure of the other one. I don’t know if it will come to that, but we’ll see.’’

After a decade in Detroit, where he won two of those Cups, Chelios was told this spring by the Winged Wheels that, at least to start the season, they don’t have room for him on the roster. Ideally, he says, he would like to play for an Eastern Conference team, and he has reached out to clubs around the league. Thus far, nothing.

“They all say they want to look at their kids first,’’ said Chelios. “And I understand that.’’

He spent much of last week helping out Ron Wilson and the rest of the Team USA coaching staff, including Scott Gordon and John Tortorella, at the club’s orientation camp just outside Chelios’s hometown of Chicago. If he finds out in, say, late November that no one wants to give him another shot in the NHL, he likely will concentrate more on his Team USA involvement, although that role remains undefined.

“I have to start out the year playing, to stay in shape and just keep in the loop in case something doesn’t work out with the young guys [with their NHL teams],’’ he said. “It’s a choice I haven’t had to make in 10 years about relocating, and my family’s not moving, so that’s probably the biggest reason I am still playing. I have never had to face leaving home and leaving my kids behind.’’

Etc.

Breaking news is good
Jordan Caron, Boston’s wounded top pick in the June draft, was back in a hockey rink Friday morning, but only as a spectator. Reached in Rimouski, Quebec, where he watched his junior team (Oceanic) go through preseason paces, Caron said a number of recent X-rays have shown that he did not suffer a more severe (i.e. displaced) fracture of his collarbone two weeks ago during a Team Canada scrimmage in Saskatoon. “So, that’s good news,’’ said Caron. “I won’t need surgery. The fracture should heal itself. I should be OK in about eight weeks.’’ Oceanic began practicing Wednesday, and this weekend will face Patrick Roy’s Quebec City club in an exhibition. Caron, a strapping winger with a touch of surliness, according to scouts, said he will resume some dry-land training this week. He is not expected to attend Boston’s rookie tournament in Kitchener, Ontario. If he needs the full eight weeks to recover, he’ll probably be sidelined until near the start of the regular season Oct. 1.

Trying to take the heat off
Dany Heatley, at the behest of Team Canada, finally ended his summer-long silence Friday and explained his decision to ask out of Ottawa. Why now? Because Heatley was about to join Team Canada for this week’s pre-Olympic tuneup in Calgary and team boss Steve Yzerman didn’t want that dark publicity cloud hovering over his squad. Meanwhile, Senators general manager Bryan Murray has been unable to move Heatley, in large part because of his salary (five years, $33.5 million). “I’ve tried, and gone beyond trying,’’ Murray told the Ottawa Citizen. Truth is, Heatley is now a stigmatized property. There may be no choice but for the Senators and Heatley to put up with one another, at least to start the season.

Change of command
The guess around the now-captainless Sharks is that ex-Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle will wear the C once the perennial underachievers get back to business. Early last week, coach Todd McLellan revealed that Patrick Marleau surrendered the C, per the club’s suggestion/request, and that Joe Thornton would not return with the alternate’s A, either. Mike Grier, the other A-lister, earlier this month agreed to a free agent deal (and homecoming) with the Sabres. The move with Marleau, who has a year left on his deal at $6.3 million, would appear to indicate that he’ll get traded, but he refuses to address publicly whether he would waive his no-trade clause. Meanwhile, San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said, “I would never stay with an organization that didn’t want me.’’ Truth is, someone has to go because the Sharks are right up against the salary cap with a need to sign at least 2-3 NHL bodies.

Loose pucks
As of Friday, the Bruins had yet to finalize the list of the two dozen or so kids, including a couple of Providence Bruins, who will attend the Sept. 6-10 rookie camp in Kitchener. GM Peter Chiarelli said the Bruins will not bring in any of their European prospects for the tournament, which will include kids from Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Ottawa . . . It’s a good bet that USA Hockey will reveal its Olympic squad Dec. 31 at Fenway Park as part of the Winter Classic extravaganza. With the ice sheet down at least through Jan. 8 for the college tourney, too bad Team Canada and Team USA couldn’t get their guys together in time for a charity scrimmage . . . “Why would any team or owner in our league want him as a business partner?’’ Such were the musings of Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commish, opining that the league has no interest in having Jim Balsillie buy the Coyotes and bring them to Toronto’s outer suburbs. Balsillie previously had somewhat of a sympathetic ear in Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, until he made public some of Melnyk’s past alleged indiscretions with Ontario and US securities commissions. Melnyk didn’t like being lumped in, even tangentially, with Bruce McNall and Billy “Boots’’ Del Biaggio when Balsillie attempted to defend his own honor in a letter to a Phoenix judge. We only wonder, why have we not heard yet from Al Sharpton?

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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