Sochi reminds us why NHLers belong in Olympics

Canada forward Sidney Crosby watches the official during a face-off against Finland forward Jarkko Immonen in the first period of a men's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
February 17, 2014, 11:37 AM

SOCHI, Russia – So here we are at the Olympics with another helping of controversy to go along with another serving of debate. Today it was “Should the Stanley Cup have paid a visit to Canada Olympic House on a delightful afternoon to be Canadian?”

We might as well get a head start on tomorrow while we’re at it. That’s when the talk will return to “Do the NHLers belong here at all?”

The answer, of course, is yes and yes.

There is even a chance the NHL might look at what is happening here and be convinced of that fact. The odds remain fairly long, to be sure, but the Olympics themselves are brimming with athletes (and families) that have overcome long odds to realize this dream.

Those are the people that were honoured to spend an hour with the shiny silver trophy. That thing is magnetic when it is in any room, in any city, in any country. It was even better than usual here. Corey Perry, who has his name inscribed into its rounded edges, even seized the moment by posing for a photograph.

You want to bet he won’t be looking back fondly at that 25 years from now?

Naturally, there are those who dismissed the entire event as nothing more than a commercial play by the NHL to capitalize on having its players here. To which we should reply: “So what?”

Everything about the Olympics is commercial, but we are often able to forget that fact because the spirit of the competition is so strong.

It’s kind of like how some Canadian athletes happen to see the Stanley Cup as something greater than the prize awarded to the NHL’s most successful entity every June. More than anything, what we’ve learned through four and a half Olympics involving NHL players is that these guys fit right in. There is no doubting that.

At least some tiny part of the conversation about the NHL’s future involvement in the Games should include what it means to the other athletes. And while conventional wisdom suggests that it would come with more exposure, that doesn’t guarantee it would ensure a better all-around experience for them.

Don’t believe me? Try asking figure skater Patrick Chan or curler Brad Jacobs. They’ve got great stories about rubbing elbows with members of Team Canada.

It was just the other day that Jacobs and members of his rink got into a heated match of ping-pong against Sidney Crosby and Shea Weber. They also got to hear a funny story from Crosby about how sore his hips were after his one and only attempt at curling during an off-day in Calgary a few years back.

Chan had a chance to pick Crosby’s brain prior to competing at the Vancouver Games four years ago and added a funny anecdote during his second Olympics. He was in the fourth-floor athletes lounge playing as the New York Islanders on “NHL 14” and guess who walked in?

John Tavares. The Islanders captain.

“I’m like `Dude, I’m playing as your team, I’m playing as you,”’ Chan told me Monday after posing for photos with the Stanley Cup. “He sat down and watched the rest of the game.”

For the figure skater, a three-time world champion who took silver in Sochi, receiving that kind of respect from the NHL players enriches his overall experience. He watched the pairs figuring skating final alongside Crosby and Martin St. Louis and came away impressed with how interested they were in it.

Crosby and St. Louis watched right until the end.

“They actually make an effort,” said Chan. “We kind of put them up on a pedestal and it’s kind of funny that when we get to the village they’re regular guys. Honestly, I’m telling you. They are just as excited to meet us as we are excited to meet them.

“Really humble and like smiling, they smile at us all of the time.”

The NHL’s Olympic debate is set to go back into overdrive on Tuesday when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and IIHF president Rene Fasel hold a joint press conference. If it’s anything like we saw in Vancouver – when Fasel and Bettman repeatedly referred to one another as “my friend” in an unfriendly way – then we could be in for some good theatre.

NHL owners are right when they say that there are problems with sending their players to the Olympics. But those problems aren’t outweighed by the possibility they find when they get here.

Everyone was asking “Why Sochi?” in the leadup to this Olympics and that question isn’t being heard much now. This event has almost felt like spring break in the coastal resort sandwiched between the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains.

There is almost no complaining now. Even a dangerous hit on Team Canada forward Jamie Benn from Finland’s Lasse Kukkonen just before Sunday’s game ended in overtime wasn’t protested by coach Mike Babcock. It likely would have triggered all kinds of debate in the NHL, but here we have found some mutual understanding.

“If you’re the referee, reffing at the Olympics, and you were in overtime what would you do with your whistle?” said Babcock. “I’d just slide it right in my pocket. Why would you get in the way? Let them compete.

“That’s what they came here for.”

And what about T.J. Oshie, who went from an under-the-radar NHLer to an American folk hero over the course six shootout attempts on Saturday afternoon. Forty-eight hours after the fact, people were still talking about it.

There is nothing that could happen in a NHL game that would generate so much buzz across the United States. Yes, hockey fans are engaged during the Stanley Cup final but this was the kind of thing the little old lady down the street got wrapped up in, too. The White House tweeted about it.

Remember when we are all focused on these Games getting completely lost in North America because of the significant time difference and remote location? T.J. Sochi has rendered that idea wrong.

Even Crosby was amazed. He took two attempts during a shootout against Switzerland in Vancouver and was asked if he would be prepared to try six should the situation ever call for it.

“I hope not,” he said. “That was incredible. Two felt like a lot. To be able to get a second chance was nice. To do what he did – and the two he missed, he had pretty good looks – so that was pretty incredible.”

This whole thing is really. And we still have a week’s worth of do-or-die hockey games to come – not to mention some pretty awesome moments in numerous other sports as well.

Sit back and enjoy, Canada. This is no time to bicker.

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