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Thanks to Olympic fever, hockey is getting the attention it deserves — for once

Lords of the Rings



Usually purveyors of gossipy pap, Access Hollywood aired a five-minute feature on St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie this week.

The smirking Minnesotan entered American hockey lore with his dazzling, daring performance in the tie-breaking shootout against Russia in the early hours of Saturday morning, changing bleary eyes to teary ones as the U.S. bested the host Russians 3-2 in a preliminary round game at the Sochi games.

Oshie, not a household name outside hockey circles, was a marginal selection for the Olympic team, with Nashville Predators and Team USA general manager David Poile playing a hunch that the youngster's skills in the shootout might just come in handy.

Poile was right. And Oshie became the kind of instant celebrity the Olympics produce, with their fecund mix of worldwide attention and national pride.

The NHL, though, is not sold on continuing its uneasy marriage with the world's foremost athletic competition. League commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking for the owners who employ him, regularly hints these games might be the last with NHL participation.

The Olympics do present certain problems for the league. The season starts earlier, runs later, and is interrupted by a protracted midseason break that eliminates the annual All-Star Game and Revenue Boom. Owners cringe with worry at every hard hit and lost edge that their very best players will be injured in games that don't put dollars in their pockets. All this during a competition that — at least directly — does not benefit their bottom lines.

And of course, they aren't making money during the three-week break when arenas sit idle — though shutting up shop didn't seem to bother owners during the lockout that shortened the 2012-13 season into the 2013 season.

The NHL isn't opposed to an international best-on-best tournament generally, though. It's just that it wants to revive the World Cup of Hockey, which would run in the month before the season, at the expense of the Olympics.

But such an event wouldn't carry the weight the Olympics do. The world would not come to a halt to watch the Bridgestone World Cup of Hockey Powered by Nissan Fueled by Hunt Brothers Pizza.

A brilliant performance by the next T.J. Oshie in a World Cup game wouldn't earn him a segment on Access Hollywood unless he scored on Jennifer Lawrence (or with her).

The NHL sees the Olympics as a hindrance — a 19-day hiccup in which they could be jamming in another six outdoor games, or slavishly cashing NBC's checks in exchange for promoting artificial rivalries.

But Russia-U.S.A. and Canada-U.S.A. are rivalries that need no branding experts.

In the context of the Olympics, they are writ even larger as the centerpiece of a 16-day extravaganza that makes us all experts on ice dancing and drags us out of bed for curling. And the next time the Blues play on national television, casual hockey fans — or even people who simply watched the game because "Russia vs. U.S.A" is an easy sell, even at 6:30 a.m. — will tune in to see what Oshie has up his sleeve.

The Olympics burn into the collective consciousness the names of biathletes and lugers. And at the Winter Olympics, hockey is the crown jewel. Olympic hockey deserves to have the game's best players putting on their countries' sweaters.

Hockey is a sport that, at least in the U.S., is all too often starved for attention, frozen out on ESPN and shoehorned into local sports pages. And its plutocratic puppet masters want to pull it from a global arena where even preliminary round performances make heroes of the unknown.

If there were a competition for missing the forest for the trees, the NHL would win the gold medal every time.



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