VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — As players began streaming into Vancouver on Sunday for perhaps the most anticipated tournament of the four Olympics featuring the NHL's big names, one of hockey's most influential groups already is looking toward the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
The message being delivered by the league's top Russians: NHL players must be there, or else.
So far, the NHL has ventured to Asia (Nagano, 1998), North America (Salt Lake City, 2002 and Vancouver) and Europe (Turin, 2006) to show off its signature players, to build interest in a sport that has a wildly devoted fan base but one that is minuscule compared to soccer, basketball, NFL football and baseball.
Where the NHL has yet to tread is Russia, where hockey is booming like nowhere else in the world. The new Kontinental Hockey League is vast and growing, featuring former NHL figureheads such as Jaromir Jagr and enough money to prevent some skilled players from defecting to North America to play.
Russia's influence keeps building in the NHL, too, far beyond that now long-ago first wave of players such as Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov. Four of the NHL's top seven scorers last season were Russian: scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. Their skills and flair for offense are pushing the sport away from a decade's worth of neutral-zone trapping, low-scoring games and bored fans.
With the NHL more reliant than ever on its Russian imports, those very players believe the league owes them one. The NHL has yet to commit to shuttering in 2014 for Sochi, partly because the league fears games played at odd hours in North America will attract few viewers during what normally is one of peak periods of interest in hockey.
The Russians' reply: What are you waiting for?
Ovechkin, hockey's most dynamic scorer, said he will play in Sochi regardless of the NHL's stance. What's interesting is two of his most vocal supporters are American (Capitals owner Ted Leonsis) and Canadian (Sidney Crosby).
"I'll go play the Olympic Games for my country," Ovechkin said. "If somebody says to me you can't play, see ya."
Leonsis backs his star's stubborn stance and so does Crosby, who said it's only fair that the NHL accommodate the very players who help fill its arenas on a nightly basis. With the possible exception of Crosby, Ovechkin is the NHL's biggest draw.
"Russian or not Russian, I can understand," Crosby said. "I think we definitely feel strongly, me personally and I think all the players do, that it could be the opportunity of a lifetime, especially the guys from Russia. It only happens once."
Just as Vancouver may well be the only time Crosby plays in an Olympics on home ice, Sochi almost certainly will be the only such chance for Ovechkin and Malkin and Kovalchuk. However, the next NHL collective bargaining agreement must accommodate a 2014 shutdown for it to occur.
However, the NHL doesn't believe the sport got much of a push from Nagano and Turin, where games were played in the middle of the night in North America and only the sport's most devoted — and sleep-deprived — rooters watched live. And NHL owners are growing restless with giving up attractive home dates at a time when the NBA is the only other major pro sport playing games.
The shutdown also occurs immediately before the early March trading deadline — Canada's equivalent to the NFL draft, with multiple TV outlets providing hours' worth of coverage. Injuries also are a worry. And the hundreds of NHL players who don't take part in the Olympics said the two-week Olympic break is too long, thus hurting conditioning and competitiveness.
A week on a beach in the Caribbean, they say, may be fun but isn't much of a way to get ramped up emotionally to the play the physical Philadelphia Flyers.
The Russian players aren't convinced.
"The Olympics are great," said Malkin, who played in Turin before joining Crosby in Pittsburgh. "Great games every day."
Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, one of Russia's top players in Vancouver, said the NHL must understand how important Sochi is to its Russian-born players. If Russia doesn't win in Vancouver, Sochi may offer the best opportunity yet for Russia to win its first Olympic hockey gold medal with NHL players participating.
"Obviously, we want to play in our home country in front of our home crowd, it's huge for us," Gonchar said. "The Russians have been playing in the league for a while and they've done a lot for this league and, hopefully, the NHL will reward us with the Olympics. We're all hoping for it. Some of them are saying we have to play there, and I agree with them. Hopefully, they are going to respect our opinion."
Another influential voice in the sport agrees. Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers' president of hockey operations and a Canada Olympic team executive, said the NHL can't halt its Olympic commitment now, not with Sochi ahead.
"It would be a terrible mistake if the NHL didn't go," Lowe said.