As owners descend on Florida this week for their annual December meetings, the league and the game itself are at a crossroads, with the NHL's almost-20-year relationship with the Winter Olympics hanging in the balance.
I've covered Winter Olympic tournaments in Italy, Canada and Russia, and I never thought it would come to this. But it's time for the NHL to walk away from its longstanding love/hate relationship with the five rings.
The International Olympic Committee seems content to let that happen. In April, the IOC announced it would no longer pay the travel and insurance costs of NHL players or the ancillary costs associated with shutting down the NHL on a quadrennial basis.
The move has left the International Ice Hockey Federation in the unenviable position of having to beg for scraps from member nations in an effort to placate the NHL and its players. Commissioner Gary Bettman said during the Stanley Cup finals that he's "pretty sure that our teams are not really interested in paying for the privilege for disrupting our season." Although Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin told colleague Pierre LeBrun at the World Cup of Hockey that he plans to play for Russia in the 2018 Games regardless of the NHL's decision, there appears to be a consensus among players and players' association officials we've talked to that they shouldn't be paying to play in the Olympics, given that they do not receive any remuneration for doing so.
That the IIHF would try to piece together enough money to cover the costs has already created outrage in the hockey community. Where would that money come from? Even if IIHF president Rene Fasel has the funds, presumably on some level they would come at the expense of developing the game in Canada, the United States and other hockey nations. And that would be a disgrace.
Before the NHL first joined the Olympics, for the Nagano Games in 1998, it was hard to imagine what the tournament would look like, with the world's best players all gathered in one place on sports' grandest stage. Five Olympic tournaments later, it's perhaps even more difficult to picture what the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, might look like without hockey's brightest stars.
An Olympic hockey tournament without NHL players would definitely be different. Would it be diminished? Probably. But maybe less so than you might think.
The fact that the NHL is on the verge of walking away from the Olympics -- a prospect more likely now that the players have rejected the league's offer to extend the current collective bargaining agreement by three years in exchange for Olympic participation -- reinforces the fact that nothing about hockey and the Games is black and white.
Have there been memorable Olympic moments? Of course.
Sidney Crosby's golden overtime winner over the U.S. in Vancouver in 2010 capped one of the greatest games of all time and put a cherry on top of one of the greatest best-on-best tournaments ever. From start to finish, the Vancouver Games were chock-a-block with dynamic performances and compelling games.
And there was Canada's seminal gold medal win in 2002 in Salt Lake City, with Wayne Gretzky at the helm, which erased 50 years of disappointment in men's Olympic hockey for the country. The semifinal game between Russia and the U.S., the team beaten by Canada in the '02 gold medal game, was among the most dramatic in international play.
What about the other tournaments? Well, that's the problem.
When the game is played on NHL-sized ice, as was the case in Vancouver, rather than on an Olympic-sized rink, the game is more enthralling. It's as simple as that.
When we talk about the Olympics in terms of growing the game, what game are we talking about growing? The NHL game and the Olympic one are sometimes mutually exclusive. Forget the time difference and the difficulties of scheduling Olympic games during North American prime time. The more important question -- and ultimate incentive for owners -- is: Did the Olympic games in Japan, Italy and Russia do anything to promote the NHL game globally?
The answer is pretty simple: No.
Olympic games played on international-sized ice, which is 15 feet wider, are not NHL quality. It's not even close. To be blunt, it's often unwatchable.
Can you name memorable moments from those non-North American Olympic tournaments?
A few: Canada's shootout loss to the Czech Republic in the semifinals of the Nagano Games, in which Gretzky was inexplicably left on the bench. The U.S.'s shootout win over Russia in a round-robin game in Sochi that made multiple shooter T.J. Oshie (T.J. Sochi?) a minor celebrity outside the game for a few days was great theater. But it was ultimately a meaningless contest, as both teams finished out of the medals.
Two shootouts, a device the NHL is working to weed out of its game back in North America -- that's what we think of.
What else? How about the Swedes' tacit acknowledgement that they tanked a round-robin game against Slovakia in 2006 to gain an easier route to the gold-medal game, in which they beat Finland? Or the Americans' smashing up their dorm rooms in Nagano after an early exit from the tournament?
Canada was defensively dominant in Sochi in a way that might never be matched in international best-on-best play. But weren't we talking about growing the game? I'm not sure watching Canada squash the life out of all comers for a fortnight is the best way to attract legions of new fans around the globe.
If the powers that be could guarantee that the Olympics in South Korea would be played on NHL ice, I'd be all for it. Same for Beijing in 2022. Bring it on.
But that isn't going to happen. And for every shining, mark-your-life-calendar-by-it moment such as Crosby's overtime winner, there'll be dozens of Olympic games that are pedestrian and largely forgettable.
And so, as the NHL edges closer to making the seminal decision to quit the Games, we contemplate the clash of the Olympic mythology -- the idea that Olympic hockey is grand and important and compelling -- with the reality that, more often than not, it is none of those things.
It makes it easier to let go when you look at it that way.