By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Vancouver could be the last Olympics to see hockey's greatest players face off for gold.
While the players' commitment to the Games remains strong, National Hockey League (NHL) owners have become far less enthusiastic about the Olympic experience and no agreement is yet in place to take part in future Games.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested last week that the league's players should enjoy the Olympic spotlight now, because they might not get the chance when the Games move to Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
"It's difficult for any business, any league, to shut down for two weeks with the attendant loss of attention and everything that flows from that," Bettman told reporters.
With the uncertainty about the future, the 2010 tournament in the game's spiritual home is assuming ever-greater status. Hockey-mad Canadians have been anticipating the event since Vancouver was first awarded the Games in 2003.
The special atmosphere is sure to add to an already compelling gold-medal chase that many pundits believe could rank alongside the U.S. team's 1980 Lake Placid "Miracle on Ice" and the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia as defining moments in the sport's international history.
No athletes will be under greater pressure to deliver gold in Vancouver than the 23 men wearing the Maple Leaf on their hockey sweaters.
Canada's ambitious goal is to top the overall medals table but it will be a hollow achievement to much of the Great White North unless the men's hockey gold is among the final tally.
"The expectation is for gold," admitted Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman. "That's no different (for Canadians) than any other Olympics but the other countries have the same mindset.
"They don't care it's being played in Canada; they're going in there to win...The Russians think the same way, the Swedes are thinking the same way. They're going into this tournament thinking: 'Hey, we want to win the gold medal. We're the best team, we're the best country'," Yzerman said.
Tickets to the gold-medal game are being offered for $50,000 a pair on the organizing committee's official resale site, leaving no doubt as to which team Canadians expect to see standing on top of the podium when the final medals of the Games are awarded on February 28.
First, however, Canada and 11 other gold-medal hopefuls will have to survive a grueling format in which the winners play seven games over 12 pressure-packed days.
While Canadians have found it hard to rein in their expectations, a glance at the results of recent years shows that the Canadian men have not always produced their best on the Olympic stage.
In 1998 at the Nagano Olympics, where professionals were allowed to take part for the first time, Canada returned home without a medal.
Four years later they won gold in Salt Lake City, ending a 50-year drought, but then they stumbled to a seventh-place finish in the 2006 Turin Games, unable to match the feat of the national women's team who took their second successive gold.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who was controversially left out of the Turin Games by Wayne Gretzky, who by then had switched from player to manager, will be the face of Canada's team in Vancouver.
At 22 years old, "Sid the Kid" has already lifted the Stanley Cup and hoisted the Olympic torch and will now carry a healthy portion of the country's gold-medal hopes.
"It's pretty hard to compare," Crosby told reporters, when asked how the pressure of a Stanley Cup final matched up to the Olympics. "I've never gone through it. I like to think all the things I've gone through before will help me prepare for that.
"Pressure will come into play but the game doesn't change; the expectations don't change."
The top-ranked Russians and defending champions Sweden will arrive in Vancouver with the same golden expectations.
Led by the NHL's top sniper, Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, the free-wheeling Russians have claimed the last two world championships, rekindling memories of the Soviet Union's Big Red Machine.
Sweden will bring 13 players from the team that won gold in Turin and, like Russia, should have no trouble scoring with a line-up that includes Detroit Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg and the Vancouver Canucks' twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who should benefit from playing on what is their home ice.
Finland, the Czech Republic and a young United States team should also figure in the medals chase with Slovakia a dark-horse pick to land on the podium.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)