By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - If Canada's dramatic overtime gold medal win over the United States marked the National Hockey League's final bow on the Winter Olympic stage, they depart to a rousing standing ovation.
With the NHL questioning its Olympic involvement and no agreement in place for future Games, the 2010 Vancouver Games may well be remembered as the last time ice hockey's very best faced off against each other for gold.
What a way to go if so.
Sidney Crosby's golden goal 7:40 into overtime provided a breathless finish to an electric Olympic tournament that somehow managed to live-up to the immense pre-Games hype of being the greatest hockey competition of all-time.
The 13-day Olympic tournament delivered some of the most gripping and compelling hockey witnessed on any sheet of ice.
With players in mid-season form, battling for medals that have grown increasingly important, the hockey produced by 12 countries was of the highest quality.
But gushing reviews and blockbuster television ratings in Canada and U.S. are still not likely to convince NHL owners to immediately sign on for another tour of Olympic duty after their players made their Olympic debut in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
The decision on whether to take part in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games will be made when the NHL and the players sit down to negotiate the NHL's next collective bargaining agreement -- not during the climax of an Olympic hockey love-in.
"It's clear when you look at these Games from 30,000 feet, it's all good but you do have to take a step back on ground level and look at the impact on our season," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters during a visit to the Games.
"It's naive for anyone to think the Olympics are great so let's go.
"We need to understand that there is an impact on our season and what can we do to balance that impact in a way that makes sense to go.
"If you look at this in a vacuum and all you are worried about is the two weeks of the Olympics it is not a very difficult decision but we don't exist in that vacuum."
While Bettman will not rush into an Olympic embrace, players and coaches, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) chief Rene Fasel are all pushing Bettman to the NHL to make the trip to Sochi.
"I hope the (NHL) players get to go to Sochi," U.S. coach Ron Wilson told reporters after his team accepted their silver medals. "I think it's great for hockey. I think we have to give back to all fans everywhere.
"We do a pretty good job of stealing players from every country and I think we owe their fans an opportunity to witness a tournament like this."
Certainly what unfolded on the Olympic ice in Vancouver will not be quickly forgotten.
In a country where hockey is closer to religion than a simple sporting pastime, Canada were under crushing pressure to deliver the gold medal that mattered more than any other to them.
Team Canada took the country on a gut-wrenching, thrill-a-second roller-coaster ride to the gold that included a shootout win over Switzerland, a loss to the U.S. and a heart-stopping semi-final victory over Slovakia.
Ninth-ranked Slovakia emerged as the Olympic tournament's surprise package, upsetting Russia in preliminary round play then ending Sweden's gold medal defense in the quarter-finals.
But Slovakia could not return home with their first ever Olympic medal, losing a nail-biter semi-final to Canada and then to Finland on Saturday in the bronze medal game.
Russia arrived in Vancouver as the world's top ranked nation and sky-high expectations but also failed to depart with a medal after being bundled out in the quarter-finals by their old rivals Canada.
Like Canada, gold will be the goal when Russia host the 2014 Games but the road to the podium might be harder without NHLers like Alexander Ovechkin showing the way.
(Editing by Jon Bramley)