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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

NHL can't afford not to send its star players to Olympics

Canada's Sidney Crosby stands with his gold medal

Canada's Sidney Crosby stands with his gold medal following a 3-2 overtime victory against the USA in the men's hockey gold medal final. (February 28, 2010) Photo Credit: MCT/Ric Ernst

Sidney Crosby is bigger than ever in Canada, his and hockey's home and native land. On top of that, his picture is on the cover of Sports Illustrated and his valuable glove and stick are heaven knows where, maybe on the way to auction. He was booed even more lustily than usual last night at Madison Square Garden, if such a thing is possible.

Thus, he is Exhibit A for the argument to keep sending National Hockey League players to the Olympics. Crosby's overtime gold-medal goal against the U.S. Sunday was as close as hockey gets to a shot heard 'round the world.

"I haven't really seen a lot of facts or [TV] ratings, but I know they were very high,'' Crosby said earlier yesterday. "Obviously, in Canada, we expected that. In the U.S., they were probably the highest they've been. That's great for everybody involved. It says a lot about the direction of the sport."

Judging from the steely buzz at the Garden, the direction must be toward Russia for the 2014 Winter Games. The crowd was jazzed and edgy, cheering for Rangers Olympians during a video tribute 7:24 into the 5-4 overtime loss - and booing the daylights out of Crosby.

Case closed? Not quite.

Next witness: Marian Gaborik, Exhibit A for the argument to stop sending NHL players to the Olympics.

Gaborik, the Rangers' top scorer, was injured in Slovakia's game against Canada and limped through the bronze- medal game against Finland. He was nowhere to be seen last night.

"He's not playing," coach John Tortorella said, deliberately tersely, before the game.

Along with the clumsy business of shutting down the league for two weeks in the heart of the season, you have to ask if it's worth the risk. Is it worth putting star players in harm's way when they're prone to put national fervor ahead of good sense?

Good question.

NHL owners reportedly are ready to say the heck with it. The Olympics are a pain and a drain. They never have yielded many converts to hockey, so why bother?

Because the sport just can't afford not to, that's why. Hockey lovers, including those who play for a living, believe the Olympic Games stokes flames. This is good for hockey and it can't hurt the NHL in the long run. As political pundits say, you've got to energize the base.

Turn hockey fans into more passionate hockey fans. Make kids go to bed dreaming about winning the gold and they someday just might help you win the Stanley Cup.

"I don't think people ever thought hockey was struggling," Crosby said. "But it's definitely getting better with the things that are happening.

"You dream of that moment," he said. "You dream of winning that gold medal, you dream of standing on that line. The fact that you're sharing it with your whole country is very special."

Easy for him to say, with his gold medal. But the Games played well in the land of silver, too.

"I don't think we just compete anymore. We're a country that wins now," said Crosby's Penguins teammate, Bill Guerin, a three-time U.S. Olympian. "We didn't win the Olympics, but you see us in the world juniors every year and now we win those tournaments. Just like my generation got inspired by 1980, there's going to be a group of kids that saw every game this time around and they're going to be inspired by that."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, an American, was a little worried when he watched the telecasts from Vancouver. Any instant could have brought an injury to Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and derailed his season.

"But I thought, watching our guys and the other NHL players, it was amazing hockey and amazing drama," Bylsma said.

And as long as someone can keep the likes of Gaborik on the bench when he needs to rest, it would be amazingly sad if the NHL doesn't keep it going.

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