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Mike Harrington: Olympic decision hovers over All-Stars

LOS ANGELES – A good time was had by all Sunday in Staples Center. And it was that way all weekend here, when you couldn't walk 20 feet at the LA Live complex without catching a glimpse of some NHL legend in town for the league's centennial celebration that was held Friday night.

But there was definitely a lingering question mark around the last few days in what the marketing folks dubbed "Hockeywood". For one thing, we don't know if the 3-on-3 tournament that looks like it's here to stay will even exist next year. Or where it might be played if it does. That's because there's still no decision about NHL players participating in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

No Olympics and the league needs a quick decision on a site that can handle the game on short notice (Hint, hint: Las Vegas). But the decision to go has the 2017-18 NHL schedule in limbo as well. Three weeks in February off or not?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy Bill Daly dropped a pessimistic tone Saturday over the ongoing talks between the league, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation. Players were clearly not happy to hear it, based on what they said Sunday when chatter with reporters turned serious following the All-Star Game.

Players are virtually unanimous in their belief they should go to the Olympics. Washington's Alex Ovechkin, in fact, has said he's going whether the league goes or not. NHL owners are sick of the whole situation, especially since it shuts the league down for three weeks in February and compresses the rest of the season.

Still, the NHL has gone since 1998 in Nagano, Japan. The Olympics have provided great moments like Canada's wins in 2002 in Salt Lake City and Sidney Crosby's Golden Goal against Ryan Miller in Vancouver eight years later. T.J. Oshie's shootout exploits for Team USA three years ago in Sochi had Americans riveted as well.

The league needed travel and insurance costs covered and the IOC/IIHF initally balked. The money has since been found by the IIHF but owners still remain uninterested.

"I think it caused a number of clubs to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, if that's how they value our participation, why are we knocking ourselves out,’ ” Bettman said of the IOC. "I think when the IOC said, ‘You know what, we don’t think it’s worth it, we’re not going to pay,' I think that may have opened a whole can of worms.”

Said Daly even more ominously: "If the status quo remains, I don’t expect us to be in the Olympics. As of right now, there’s not a will."

That's not the case with the players.

"If it's not the best in the world, I feel like we're misrepresenting our sport on a pretty huge scale," Chicago's Jonathan Toews said here Sunday. "A lot of the talk has been it’s the players pushing for it, and it’s the players that are interested and want to go. I think the players do want to go, but I think it should be of interest to the players and the league."

Added Edmonton star Connor McDavid, who would be looking to play for Team Canada for the first time: "One hundred percent, NHL players should be there and I certainly hope they are there. But ultimately, it isn't up to me. There's a lot of people higher up than me figuring that one out. One hundred percent they should go. I can't picture an Olympics without it, to be honest."

Crosby could be looking at the once-in-a-lifetime chance of three straight gold medals if Team Canada goes. The chance could be lost without him ever taking the ice.

"I try not to get too caught up in it, all the information that's released," Crosby said after his Metropolitan Division won the 3-on-3 challenge with a 4-3 win over the host Pacific. "It can change quickly. Just trust everyone involved will try to put their best up. If it does work out that we can do it, it's a great opportunity for everybody."

That's what this weekend was as well. Players, fans and media all got chance to see and mingle with stars of the game in way they never will again. It was really a scene unlike any in NHL history.

Baseball has had a few of them, notably the crowd around Ted Williams prior to the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park, the reveal of the All-Century team prior to Game Two of the '99 World Series or the parade of legends trotted out in 2008 prior to the final All-Star Game at old Yankee Stadium.

The NHL trotted the legends out in team sweaters for one last ovation and it was sensational. One quibble: Most of them were in current team sweaters. Gilbert Perreault and Dominik Hasek, for instance, were in 2017-era Sabres navy blue. It would have been great for the league to splurge and go period with Perreault in classic powder blue and Hasek in black and red goathead.

The oldtimers had as much fun as the current players. The NHL100 lined up on the ice to greet the current players in their introductions and stage faceoffs among several dozen of them. Bobby Orr tugged at the Chewbacca beard of San Jose's Brent Burns, with Burns joking later, "I guess I can't wash it anymore."

Wayne Gretzky and longtime Edmonton teammate Paul Coffey coached the Metropolitan to the title, even using a successful offside challenge to nail McDavid just over the blue line and wipe out a goal in the championship game. With $1 million on the line to the winning team, the championship game was crisply played with great goaltending and players actually trying to block shots.

But as soon as the players left the ice, the focus turned to next February. Time is running out for a decision and an answer is needed.

"I don’t think it’s just about Canadians wanting to go to the Olympics,” Toews said. “Every guy at the NHL level wants to represent their country at that level. If you ask me, I don’t think you can really compare it to the World Cup or the world championships.

“The Olympics are a whole other thing.”


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