What the loss of NHL players would mean to the Winter Olympics

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SOCHI -- The Canadian hockey team skated off the Olympic ice, possibly for good, and I couldn’t tell if Swedish players were happy they won a medal or relieved they didn’t have to face another team from Canada.

The final score was Canada 3, Sweden 0, but it was really 3-2.

The NHL has sent players to five Olympics. Canada has won gold three times. The rest of the world has won gold twice.

We don’t know for sure if the NHL will release its players in the middle of February 2018 to play in the Pyeongchang, South Korea, but the NHL has hinted as strongly as it possibly could that it is leaving the Olympics business.

Maybe this is just an empty threat to get concessions from the International Ice Hockey Federation, though I don’t think so. Maybe NHL owners will cave. But as the Sochi Olympics end, it’s time to ask a bigger question that goes beyond hockey:

What would the Olympics be without NHL players?

To an American audience, they would be a lot of flipping, twirling and spinning for medals -- and hoping judges appreciate American flipping, twirling and spinning. Americans generally chafe at any sport that is judged, but judges contributed so much to the American medal count in Sochi, the USOC should pursue lifetime appointments, like we have for Supreme Court justices.

The U.S. finished second in the medal count with 28 medals. Seven came in freestyle skiing, two in figure skating and five in snowboarding.

The tone was set at the start of these Olympics when Sage Kotsenburg won gold in snowboard slopestyle before 98 percent of Americans had ever heard of snowboard slopestyle. Kotsenburg seems like an awesome dude, and the slopestyle events are quite entertaining if you give them a chance. But the Winter Olympics may give you the sense that the kids have taken over the principal’s office.

If you want to hold a major sporting event, you need some recognizable sports. Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin is poised to be the dominant American story of the 2018 Olympics, and maybe figure skater Gracie Gold will be a gold-medal threat. But if this becomes a second-rate hockey tournament, then some of the air will be sucked out of the Olympics. Not all, certainly. But some.

"I certainly hope the players and the NHL stays in," said Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who resigned his post with Team Canada after Sunday's gold medal win. "There are varying opinions, but we're trying to grow our sport and the Olympics is biggest stage in every sport. I recognize there's a lot of factors for teams, but I think it's tremendous for our game and tremendous for the National Hockey League."

MUIR: Who is likely to succeed Yzerman with Team Canada?

As I have written, I understand the NHL's side here. But in Sochi for the past two weeks, the hockey at Bolshoy Ice Dome felt like an anchor for the Olympics. You could go off and watch snowboarding or short-track speed-skating and enjoy it, but you always knew you could go back to hockey.

The Summer Games are easily accessible because they are truly just summer games. The first week is dominated by swimming, which most Americans have done. The second is dominated by track, which almost all of us have done, faster sometimes than others, depending on who is chasing us. We have all wrestled siblings, and sometimes those wrestling matches escalated into full-fledged boxing. Then there is basketball, a game invented in the U.S., featuring our most recognizable athletes.

We understand tennis, both traditional and table, and many of us have played volleyball on a beach or at least watched attractive people do it while we pretended to read a book. Even the obscure summer sports usually make sense. I’ve never thrown a hammer, but I think about it every time I put something together from Ikea.

Speaking of Swedes: They were outclassed by Canada, but one reason is that they lost center Nicklas Backstrom to (an apparently minor) drug violation before the puck dropped Sunday.

Sweden had already lost star Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury earlier in these Olympics. That must have given a strange feeling to Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, who benefited from Zetterberg’s absence but will miss him when Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings make their playoff push in the next few weeks.

The New York Islanders’ John Tavares also seriously injured himself here and will miss the rest of the season.

This is one reason the owners are tired of the Olympics, and again, I can’t fault them. If you pay a man millions of dollars to play a sport, you want him to play it for you.

The players have not wavered in their desire to play. As Canadian defenseman Duncan Keith said: “As a player, you want to play in the best tournaments.… It’s kind of out of my hands right now.”

Hockey gives the Olympics some credibility with hardcore sports fans. I would still like to see the tournament moved to the Summer Olympics, but I recognize that’s unlikely. In the meantime: Canada 3, Rest of the World 2. The score may stand for decades.

WOLFF: Still in search of Russia as Sochi Olympics end