By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There has been a lot of hand-wringing locally about the NHL’s decision to go forward with a decision to play in the Olympics.
A three-week break in the middle of the season? What other sport would do that? The answer to that question is no other league would do it. But no other sport has the vast talent pool comparable to hockey.
The seven international powers are Canada, Russia, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Any one of those teams could win.
Put together an international tournament in any other sport but futbol and you couldn’t possibly have anything close to the level of competition that you have in international hockey.
The fans of the sport love Olympic hockey. When Canada and the U.S. met in the gold medal game in Vancouver in 2010, it was the most-watched sporting event in Canadian broadcast history and it was watched by 27.6 million in the United States. That made it the most-watched hockey game since the USA-Finland gold medal game in the 1980 Olympics.
The NHL could not ignore those numbers, considering that it is coming off a brilliant Stanley Cup Final between the Blackhawks and the Bruins consider to be one of the greatest in the sport’s history.
After the 2012-13 season was nearly canceled, the sport has momentum again and if Gary Bettman had decided to keep NHL players out of the Olympics, it would have been a ridiculous decision to gain new fans for the sport.
Locally, there will be plenty of interest. Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook are all under consideration for Team Canada and it would be a surprise if at least four of them don’t make the final roster.
Patrick Kane should be a mainstay for Team USA. Marcus Kruger, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya will be key players for Sweden, while Marian Hossa should be one of Slovakia’s best players.
There will be plenty of reasons for Blackhawks fans to get excited about Olympic hockey.
The midseason break in the schedule is troubling to many, but it should not be. The 2013 season was one of the most exciting in recent memory once the lockout ended because the schedule was compacted and there were a lot of exciting games, seemingly one on top of the other.
Once the Olympics ends, NHL teams will be quite active in March. The Blackhawks will play 15 games in 31 days and that should prepare them for the rigors of another playoff run.
The downside of the Olympics is the risk of serious injuries. If Toews, Keith, Kane or Crawford were to suffer a serious injury, that would be disastrous. But it’s a risk that every participant is willing to take for the sake of competition and brilliant international hockey.
There is something fascinating about the idea of seeing Stanley Cup Final participants like Toews and Patrice Bergeron playing on the same team. It’s equally enticing to see Toews battling Kane in another Canada-U.S. showdown.
It’s worth shutting down the NHL for a couple of weeks in February. The sport is played at its highest level in the Olympics and the artistry creates memories that will last for decades.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.