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Campbell's Cuts: NHL owes it to fans to stay in Olympics

US and Canadian fans meet after Canada defeated the US in the gold medal game. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

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US and Canadian fans meet after Canada defeated the US in the gold medal game. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

VANCOUVER – Your move, Mr. Bettman. We know you say you’re undecided, but we also know that deep down, you and the guys who employ you don’t want to continue going to the Olympics.

But then one of the greatest games in history on the world’s biggest stage falls into your lap. Now what are you supposed to do. How can you now stand in front of the hockey world and ever tell us that participating in the Olympics isn’t worth the trouble?

“I think (the Olympics) is great for hockey and we have to give back to fans everywhere,” USA coach Ron Wilson said after the gold medal game. “We do a pretty good job of stealing players from every country and we owe their fans an opportunity to witness a tournament like this one.”

If the NHL wants to be myopic enough to pull the plug on the Olympics after what the world saw in Vancouver, shame on it. If NBC and the NHL can’t gain any traction for hockey at all after everything that was offered up to the casual sports fan over the past two weeks, any hope of ever making any inroads into the American sporting culture is a completely lost cause.

So reward the people who pay the freight. Give them Olympic hockey once every four years. Every four years. Kill the World Cup of Hockey if you have to and run the never-ending season even longer once every four years to do it, but don’t screw this up. Look beyond the nose on your face.

While in Washington recently, I ran into a woman who drives an hour each way every day just to watch the Capitals practice. She spends $2,500 on season tickets. She told me she knew absolutely nothing about hockey before the 2006 Olympics, but saw Alex Ovechkin playing and learned he played for the local team.

I have no idea how many other people there are like that, but I’ve got to think there’s more than just one of them.

The reality is the Olympics needs the NHL more than the NHL needs the Olympics. The NHL will argue there has been no sustained interest in hockey beyond the Olympic tournament and that shutting down for two weeks every year might not be the best use of its time in a season that begins to border on tedious by the time the Stanley Cup is awarded in June.

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And the league is probably right. It is not garnering legions of new fans by playing in the Olympics, but how many is it keeping? The economic crisis has hit almost everyone and how does the NHL not know some guy in Detroit who has to make a tough decision on his entertainment dollar isn’t opting to continue to spend his money on the NHL because of what he saw in the Olympics?

That’s the kind of person who will be willing to stay up well into the night to watch hockey games for Sochi. He will watch a Sweden-Finland final because he knows half his team in playing in the game.

These are the kinds of things people at the league never seem to consider when it comes to the Olympics. It always seems to be about attracting new eyeballs instead of servicing the ones you already have.

When Sidney Crosby called to Jarome Iginla for that pass in overtime, he did so in a very emphatic way.

“He was yelling pretty urgently,” Iginla said of Crosby. “There’s different pitches of yell and he was screaming.”

Crosby shouldn’t shut up now. It’s time for superstars like himself and all players and fans to yell until they’re hoarse that they want the NHL to keep playing in the Olympics. If you have to shame these guys into doing it, the ends will have justified the means.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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