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Campbell's Cuts: Olympic participation slowing end of NHL season

Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are both one goal behind Sidney Crosby for the league lead. The Pens star sits at 47 markers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are both one goal behind Sidney Crosby for the league lead. The Pens star sits at 47 markers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For the first time since the dead-puck era, there’s a chance the NHL could be without a 50-goal scorer. As a result, the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy has become almost as much a turtle race as the one for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

What makes that development so peculiar is that it was so promising not that long ago. There was a time when Alex Ovechkin was on pace for 58 goals, Sidney Crosby for 56 and Patrick Marleau for 50. With a good push, players such as Steven Stamkos, Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik could have hit the 50-goal mark as well.

Going into the last week of the season, there are only three players who have a realistic chance of scoring 50. Crosby needs three goals in his final four games, while Ovechkin and Stamkos must score at a goal-a-game pace to hit the mark.

What changed? Well for those who are questioning the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics – which is confined largely to those who own teams and draw paychecks from the league – things have certainly slowed down since the best players put on their display in Vancouver. Ovechkin has just four goals in 14 games since the Olympics, while Crosby has five in 16 and Marleau five in 17. The league, meanwhile, has watched scoring dip since the Games. Prior to the Olympics, teams were averaging 5.50 goals per game (not including shootout goals), but have scored just 5.17 goals per game since then.

Certainly part of the reasoning would be that teams have tightened up defensively for the stretch run and in anticipation of the playoffs. It also hasn’t helped Ovechkin’s cause that he has missed 10 games this season. But you also can’t ignore the possibility that some of the league’s star players are beginning to wear down because of the extra two weeks of hockey.

Which is exactly what is making the NHL so reticent about continuing its Olympic involvement, particularly in light of the fact it is not reaping any real benefits in terms of increased revenues.

And if the NHL is seeing its product diminished and having to interrupt its season, it wants to get a little something for the trouble; that is what all this is now about. According to those close to the league, the NHL will not even consider participating in the Games going forward unless it receives a $100 million payment per Olympics from the International Olympic Committee.

The NHL reasons that hockey is one of the sports that drive revenues during the Winter Olympics and that the IOC makes hundreds of millions of dollars from hockey. That was certainly the case in hockey-mad Vancouver in hockey-mad Canada and the NHL simply wants a part of the action to the tune of just more than $3 million per team to help ease the pain.

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And, really, it’s difficult to argue with the league’s logic here. The Olympics stopped being about amateurism and idealism a long time ago. The IOC soaks people for every penny it can get, right down to charging $15 for a sandwich and a pop at its venues. The NHL, meanwhile, is the only professional league that gives all of its best players and shuts its season down to participate. And unlike sports such as track and field and figure skating, Olympic performance doesn’t have one iota of impact on the earning potential of hockey’s athletes nor does it appear to raise the profile of the sport to any significant degree.

This corner has long been of the opinion that those reasons alone are not good enough to justify the NHL pulling out of the Olympics, because sometimes it’s about serving those who actually pay money for the product and go to the games. If the NHL is going to give its fans a bloated league with too many fringe teams and shove too much of its product down people’s throats, the least it can do is give its fans the kind of spectacle the Olympic stage gives them every four years.

Simply speaking, the NHL shouldn’t have the right to take something away from its fans simply because things haven’t worked out the way it thought they would.

But it’s also reasonable to expect the league to get some compensation in return for generating so much in the way of revenues for the Olympic movement. The NHL should be at the 2014 Olympics and beyond, but it should also get paid for doing so.

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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