Sunday's six-game NHL slate brings us to the Olympic break, and fans around the league are preparing to turn their attentions from rooting for their favorite club to donning their country's colors with intense national pride over the next two weeks. The Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, and Buffalo Sabres were some of the teams that held pregame ceremonies Saturday night to honor the Olympians heading to Vancouver this week. Buffalo's five Olympians (six, if you count head coach Lindy Ruff) were all presented with the jersey of their home country, and in the waning moments of the Sabres' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks, the HSBC Arena crowd showered goaltender Ryan Miller(notes) with "U-S-A, U-S-A" chants.
The scenes in those buildings last night were fun to see, and more are likely Sunday. The support and nationalistic pride goes to show how immensely popular the NHL's participation in the Winter Olympics is. After the Vancouver Games, a lot of pressure will be on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the league to work out an agreement with the future National Hockey League Players' Association executive director to ensure that the world's top players will be in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
At the moment, there's no guarantee that the NHL will allow its players to participate in the Sochi Games. The ongoing conflict between the NHL and the Kontinental Hockey League, as well as the NHL's hesitance to condense an 82-game schedule and shut down business for two weeks, may mean that this is the last time we see top-flight talent in Olympic hockey competition. While we're a few years away from the NHL and NHLPA making a decision about it, the pressure for the NHL to go to Sochi will only increase as the Vancouver Games progress and more NHL players express their delight in participating.
Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin has already said – with support from team owner Ted Leonsis – that he doesn't care if he's suspended; he'd still go play in his home country in 2014. Other players, especially the Russians, will echo those sentiments. At the Team Canada news conference Saturday, team executive director and two-time Olympian Steve Yzerman endorsed NHL players' participation:
"I think it has been great for hockey," Yzerman said. "You've had three different gold-medal winners. I think it's been great for the game and it's been great for the NHL. I can tell you as a former player and playing with a lot of these guys and knowing them, they love being a part of it. ... Regardless of the inconvenience or whatnot, it would be a mistake for the game if we're not involved."
Of course, plenty of owners around the NHL would disagree with Yzerman that it's been great for the league, and they'd cringe at the thought of one of their players getting hurt during games that aren't helping the club that signs their paychecks.
Though that may be a fight for another day, it'll be a fight that could lead to embarrassing results should the NHL decide to stay home instead of going to Sochi.