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Olympic Hockey A Burden On NHL

The NHL has a problem. Every four years, the league sends its best and most marketable players to compete for Olympic glory. It makes sense.

The Olympics is a massive international stage, and the exposure is important to the league’s plan to displace auto racing and the NBA as the fourth and fifth most popular U.S. sports. Players love the competition and the honor of playing for their countries, but hockey is a rough sport and injury is almost inevitable.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has not yet commented on player availability for the 2018 games in South Korea, but a decision is expected within six months. It’s a difficult situation for the often-embattled commissioner; he has to balance the marketing value of the Olympic games against th financial commitment teams make to its players.

One can hardly blame New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow for being upset after losing John Tavares for the season, after the league’s third leading scorer tore his medial collateral ligament and meniscus during Canada’s win over Latvia.

Snow lambasted the idea of NHL players in the Olympics, telling Newsday, “Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season ticket holders now? It’s a joke. They want all the benefits from NHL players in Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt.”

The MASH unit for the 2014 games isn’t large, but the names of those who have been knocked out is impressive. Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg withdrew from competition after re-aggravating the herniated disc that has been plaguing him for years.

Zetterberg’s injury wasn’t caused by Olympic play, but that’s little consolation for the Red Wings, who are in a fight for the final play off spot in the Eastern Conference. His Detroit teammate Pavel Datsyuk (who played for his native Russia) is also injured, skating around on a bum left knee. Zetterberg underwent surgery last week and may make it back in time for the playoffs, if the Wings make it that far.

The Florida Panthers sent two players to the Olympics and both are coming home in worse shape then when they left. Tomas Kopecky of Slovakia suffered a concussion after taking an elbow to the head against Slovenia, and Aleksander Barkov of Finland injured his knee, which will likely require surgery and four to six weeks of recovery time.

Finally, the Rangers’ leading scorer Mats Zuccarello suffered a hand injury while playing for Norway and will miss the next month.

There’s no doubt the owners would love to detach themselves from the international game, at least during the regular season. This is good news for Bettman, whose primary assignment is to represent those responsible for his hire. But he also recognizes the boost his league gets every four years and how committed players are to maintaining a connection to their home nations. The challenge is how to come up with a plan to satisfies both sides.

An age limit might do it.

Mandating a maximum age of 30 would give most players two Olympic cycles in which to play for their country. The NHL would benefit from the greater focus on younger players while protecting veterans from injuries that could end careers.

One other option would be to shift hockey from the winter to summer games.

Hockey is a winter sport played indoors just like basketball. Moving the games would eliminate the midseason stoppage that can kill momentum, and give injured players time to rehabilitate before the NHL season begins. It would also bring more fans to the games.

Interest in the Winter Olympics continues to fall. This year’s ratings were down 12 percent from the Vancouver games, with hockey being one of the few good draws. The USA-Russia men’s hockey game was the most-watched hockey game in NBCSN’s history. The sport has even scored higher ratings than female figure skating, long the highlight of the Winter games. It might just be the right time to try something radical.

Twitter: @SteveMurray84