Future of Olympic hockey

This may be the last year of NHL participation in Olympic hockey. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

This column appears in the Jan. 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

A safe prediction: the men's hockey tournament at the Vancouver Winter Olympics will be a smashing success. In Canada, where images of kids with sticks and skates adorn the money, they've been counting the seconds until Feb. 16, the start of the 13-day, 12-nation fest. Nearly 20,000 frantic fans will jam GM Place (a.k.a. Canada Hockey Place, for the duration of the Games) to try to push the home crew to its golden destiny. Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who will suit up for Russia, speaks for his peers when he says, "I can't wait. It's going to be crazy up there."

If you want to hear a tougher call, though, ask me if the NHL will continue its Olympic participation beyond this
year. Because despite the impending love-in, there is no guarantee it will.

In every Olympic year since 1998, the league has shuttered its regular season for roughly two weeks so its stars could skate for their homelands. The official thinking since those first NHL-attended Games has been that Olympic exposure would lure a big-bucks national TV deal and help the NHL cut a larger swath through the pro sports landscape.

So much for that idea. The league got virtually no bounce in 1998 or 2006, when the Games (in Japan and Italy) were played several time zones away from American and Canadian viewers. It didn't help that both Team USA and Team Canada failed to medal either time. Even in 2002, with Salt Lake City playing host and the Americans and Canadians advancing to a gold medal showdown, things didn't work out as planned. With our northern neighbors -- led off the ice by executive director Wayne Gretzky and on it by Mario Lemieux -- winning the entertaining game 5-2, the TV rating was a huge (by hockey's calculus) 10.7 in the U.S. But still the league saw no carryover. The Stanley Cup Finals between the Red Wings and Hurricanes three months later earned a meager 3.6.