Soak it in, because this could be the last, best Olympic hockey tournament

Soak it in, because this could be the last, best Olympic hockey tournament

SOCHI, Russia — What may be the last truly great Olympic hockey tournament kicked off for the United States here Thursday with a 7-1 annihilation of Slovakia, providing the Americans with a nice warm-up for Saturday's showdown with Russia.

You might as well savor every second of play here, even the blowouts, because the NHL's participation in this event, and the unmatched level of play that it delivers, is endangered.

The NHL has made no official decision — it said one is expected later this year — but team owners have made no secret of their desire to end the league's relationship with the Olympics.

[Related: US crushes Slovakia 7-1 in men's hockey Olympic opener]

Since 1998, the NHL has shut down for 16 days every four years so that their stars could compete for gold. Back then, it was seen as a chance to market star players and the game itself to a global and, maybe most important, national audience. Now many owners consider it an unnecessary nuisance and one that really doesn't deliver a meaningful bump in popularity.

Players almost universally want to continue the relationship — the lure of playing for their country remains strong no matter how many millions they've earned, and just making it to this event is considered a career achievement. It's also just … fun.

"The players love playing in these games," center Patrick Kane said. "And being a part of it is a whole different theme than you feel in the NHL."

"It's a huge dream," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues, who admitted that he battled rare nerves for the first few shifts of his Olympic debut. "It was just a great experience."

The question is, how hard will they fight, both collectively and even individually?

"We will have a broader discussion with the players' association on international competition and what we are doing internationally," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Reuters.

If the owners get their way, the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will likely feature college and perhaps junior players from various nations, or some mix with non-NHL players.

[Related: Sochi men's hockey medal predictions]

The spirited competition and nationalism will remain, but the otherworldly level of play that has come to define this event will be lost.

The opposition of the NHL as a business is understandable. It essentially loans out its best talent for the International Olympic Committee to profit off, while going dark in the heart of its season. It risks injury and fatigue to its highly paid stars that are under guaranteed contracts.

And it's not only impossible to calculate the boon of publicity; there's an argument that it can actually hurt the NHL.

Simply put, this is the best hockey tournament possible. These are the best of the best playing on incredibly motivated all-star teams (the Slovakian defense notwithstanding). After three prelim games, it's one-and-done, just a series of historic Game 7s. The larger ice surface allows for a more open and exciting offensive style to flourish. There is less clutching, grabbing and stoppages of play. As many as five or six different nations could win gold.

The casual fan, hooked on this event over a two-week period, who then turns to a March NHL game will find an inferior product, perhaps significantly. As thrilling and exciting as the NHL can be, this is just uniquely perfect.

And for that reason alone, this would be a brutal loss for the sport of hockey.

The NHL is working on creating a hockey world cup that would be played in September every other year and, most important for them, be owned and operated by the league.

[Photos: Team USA routs Slovakia in preliminary round]

It's a fine idea, but it won't be this. First, guys will still be getting into playing shape and developing their timing. Others will be recovering from offseason surgeries. Here everyone is in prime condition, sharp and at full-strength.

And there is no need to create meaning: The Olympics are the Olympics; they remain a dream of everyone, everywhere, no matter the age, background or level of success. There is nothing artificial here. It's real.

Both the United States and Russia equally anticipate Saturday's game. The historic ramifications are clear to all. It's a dream for everyone even if there are only two players (both Russians) who were even born when the Miracle on Ice was played.

"Sounds like everyone is looking forward to that game," captain Zach Parise said. "We are. It's going to be fun."

[Related: Canada puts away pesky Norway in Olympic opener]

Who knows if that can be duplicated in a non-Olympic event.

Perhaps that is why the players are expected to fight for this to continue. The NHLPA may try to work a compromise over keeping this in exchange for participating in the world cup tournament. There is certainly a chance they go hardline and save it, or that individual players will attempt to negotiate outs in their contracts going forward.

The NHL knows this is the time to attempt a break, though. There are no South Koreans in the league, so there won't be a backlash from players from the host country, the way Russians certainly would have done if they hadn't been allowed to come here.

There's a lot to work out, obviously. It'll all come later; business and politics and negotiations taking center stage.

Right now the best players in the world are competing for precious national pride on the most ideal stage ever dreamed up.

There are no guarantees that it will continue. So you might as well soak up every second of it, even a Massacre on Ice like US-Slovakia.

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