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Bettman should let NHLers play: Patrick Brown

PATRICK BROWN

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (The Canadian Press via AP)

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (The Canadian Press via AP)

On Monday, hockey fans got the news that we’ve all been dreading for months: the NHL won’t allow their players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea. Shame on the NHL, whose leadership needs to understand that there is more to hockey than money. And shame on the IOC.

The dream of seeing a Canadian gold medal three-peat led by Sidney Crosby was crushed. Local players like PK Subban, Connor McDavid and John Tavares won’t have the opportunity to wear Team Canada’s jersey.

NHLers playing in the 1998 Nagano Olympics was an incredible and gut-wrenching experience. I remember like it was yesterday my hero and now friend Wayne Gretzky getting left off the shootout roster against Dominik Hasek and the unlikely gold-medal winning Czechs. It still stings.

And we all remember captain Sidney Crosby scoring the game-winner against the Americans in Vancouver. A whopping 22 million Canadians watched that goal and shared this moment of collective joy. From long-time hockey fans to new Canadians watching the sport for the first time, the “Golden Goal” unified us all.

No matter what the NHL does, we will always remember this moment. But not everyone will have the opportunity. I’m talking about the next generation of hockey fans and players — kids too young to remember Vancouver.

These young hockey fans shouldn’t have to hear second-hand from older relatives about the glory days of Olympic hockey. They should be able to see it first-hand. It’s one thing to cheer for their favourite NHL teams. But to see players competing for their country, sacrificing their bodies night after night for nothing but the honour of representing Canada is a lesson that simply can’t be replaced. This is the moment when NHLers go from professional athletes to role models for our youth.

It’s also a huge marketing opportunity for the NHL and the sport of hockey. There’s truly no better way to build up our sport than putting the world’s best on the greatest stage sports has to offer. Not just here in Canada, but world-wide. Pyeonchang is an opportunity to introduce hockey to a whole new audience.

The only people who want NHLers in the Olympics more than fans are the players themselves. Reacting to the news, the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist tweeted about the “disappointing news, NHL won’t be part of the Olympics 2018. A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted,” adding that players will miss “the most special adventure in sports.”

Whatever happens, let’s all get behind the Canadian team and cheer for a third gold. While uncertainty hangs over the NHL’s future participation in the games, one thing is certain: The Canadian team will fight for every loose puck, block shots and play through injuries in true Canadian fashion. And they’ll have the whole country standing behind them.

— Patrick Brown is leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.