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World Hockey Summit's mantra of "let them play" is not that simple


(TORONTO) -- I'm here at the World Hockey Summit trying to assimilate three days of information and ideas that span the spectrum of considerations. This forum included everything from what is best for the youngest of youth players to all the political and economic issues connected with NHL players participating in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

Interestingly, the feelings are the same across the board: Let them play. That's the best answer for a five-year-old beginning to discover the game and it is the overwhelming sentiment with regard to NHL participation in an Olympics for the fifth time. Let them play!

If only it were that simple.

Respected people representing all facets of hockey from all perspectives and global locales expertly presented reams of data to support the just-get-out-there-and-do-it idea. Physiologists, psychologists and coaches versed in early childhood development flashed charts and graphs that showed when kids develop mentally and physically, and the correlation between cognitive development and on-ice instruction. Conclusion? Kids learn by doing. Make the game fun.

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At the other end, business folks from North America and Europe who track ratings, sell to sponsors, and monitor market trends extolled the unmitigated success of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. On every conceivable level, the findings were off the charts in pointing to the positives. Even the players are on board, with Daniel Alfredsson trying to articulate his Olympic experiences and then summing up his emotions in the context of business by commenting that, "It (NHL Olympic participation) shouldn't even be part of the negotiations (of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2012). It is bigger than that."

A 2008 NHL Players' Association poll seems to support Alfredsson's view as 95% voted for continued Olympic participation. The fans -- especially up here in gold medal-winning Canada -- are absolutely resolute and rabid in their conviction that repeat participation is essential. The Canada vs. USA final was captivating and convincing to people everywhere. There is only one conclusion anyone could arrive at: Let them play. Certainly there can be no other answer, given the symposium's straightforward dialogue.

Well, it isn't that clear cut. Labor relations, transfer agreements, and the exodus of players from European countries to play abroad all distort the "Let them play" mantra. What is good business for one group globally might not be such a solid proposition for others. Notice, I slipped in the "b" word. What starts out as a high-minded discourse on growing the game eventually evolves into a wrapup of dollars and cents. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burkespoke passionately about the need to compensate players for the financial sacrifices they make to participate in the Olympics while other people profit from their presence. Commissioner Gary Bettmansaid the Games are "a mixed bag" of positives and negatives for the NHL, especially when it comes to the costs of interrupting the regular season.

Financial pluses and minuses are also found at the youngest levels of the sport where "Let them play" seems to be unquestionable. Yet, throw in the cost of ice, equipment, the need for more facilities and the ongoing effort to train the trainers, and suddenly even the notion of an unstructured, idyllic introduction to the game of hockey takes on, well, structure. Maybe it's sad, maybe not. But it is true.

Don't get me wrong, the World Hockey Summit was an exhilarating experience. I appreciate USA Hockey inviting me to be a part of the proceedings. I learned a lot, and some things I'll be able to put into practice immediately on multiple levels. The challenge remains, though, to reconcile the business case with the notion of "Let them play."

As soon as the words "play" and "business" show up in the same sentence, things get a little more complex. It's as true for the parent of that five-year old learning the game as it is for everyone all the way up to the NHL's Board of Governors.