When the 2006 Winter Olympics ended in Turin, the word was that Vancouver would be the last trip for the NHL.
Then league didn’t want to go to Sochi.
But once Team Canada won the gold medal in 2010, it was a fait accompli that NHLers would end up in Russia.
One of the greatest Olympic hockey games of all-time saw Canada edge out the United States in overtime. Everyone connected with the sport immediately dreamed of the next engagement. No way Canada wasn’t going to defend its gold medal.
Before and during the Sochi Games, the talk was once again that "this is it." No more NHL participation. No more shutting down the league for nearly three weeks. The majority of the league's general managers don’t want it. The owners almost unanimously don’t want it. No way the NHL goes to South Korea in 2018, people are saying, just as they did four years ago about Sochi.
And now the Sochi Games have ended with Team Canada having won gold again. The Canadians are going for the three-peat next time around and you can be damn sure those who played in this Olympics, plus those who want to play next time, are going to demand a return in 2018.
No country has won three consecutive gold medals in men’s hockey since the dominant Soviets won four straight between 1964 and 1976. The entire nation of Canada will demand a return trip, even if NHL general managers and owners want to replace the Olympics with a return to the former World Cup of Hockey.
As good as that event was in the past, it’s not the Olympics. Nothing is the Olympics. Nothing can compare to it.
“I can remember in Vancouver we had the same discussions before, during, and after the Olympics,” said Mark Streit of Switzerland, one of five Flyers to compete in Sochi.
“You go in a four-year mode before we begin talking about how it’s not benefiting the league. I think it’s great for the game. You want to expand? It’s great for Europe and Russia. ... It was fun to play, great competition.
“The Olympic Games are really special. I’m a big fan of it. I can understand how the owners are not that excited about it. We’ve had those conversations every year. For the players, at the end of the day, it’s great for the game and for our fans.”
Ask any of the Flyers -- even those who aren’t Canadian -- and they’ll tell you the Olympics are part of their soul and a part of hockey history. NHL participation is simply a must. Rest assured the NHLPA will demand it, as it should.
“Out of 50 players between Sweden and Canada, 49 of them play in the NHL,” Scott Hartnell said.
“So obviously, the best players in the world are in North America playing in the best league in the world. So would fans want to see the best players in the league play for the gold? Absolutely. Do the players want to play? Absolutely.”
If the NHL wants to really expand its brand, it should be playing games overseas on a yearly basis, as it has done in Europe, and embrace the Olympics, not shun it or merely tolerate it as a peacekeeping tool with the NHLPA.
As bad as we feel for the Islanders, who lost John Tavares for the rest of the season with a knee injury, and the Red Wings, who lost an already-injured Henrik Zetterberg to back surgery, that could have happened in February during NHL play. Or during the World Cup of Hockey, if that had been played.
Injuries occur every night in the NHL. It’s part of the game, unfortunately. The Olympics are no different.
Ed Snider and his fellow owners loathe the NHL’s participation only because it doesn’t enhance the league’s financial well-being. If the day ever comes where the NHL can figure out how to monetize the Winter Games with multi-million dollar assurances, the owners’ stance will change. But just because it hasn’t happened yet, that's a poor excuse for the NHL not to participate.
“Guys have a chance to go and they enjoy it, it’s a good experience,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who was deeply hurt that he wasn’t selected for Team Canada.
“Anytime you can represent your country you take it to heart. Every guy who came back was pretty impressed with the event. It’s good to put our game out there.
“Hockey is something we take to heart. We say hockey is Canada’s game. You can see the semi-finals and finals being big games. Everyone watching it. It’s great for the game and they’re the best players playing over there.”
The best hockey players in the world play in the NHL. And those players should be playing in the Olympics with the best athletes the world has to offer in other winter sports, as well.
The 2018 games are in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It has to happen. And it will.