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Top Shelf: Life after Sochi

<p>When the NHL went on hiatus for the Olympics earlier this month, a debate raged as to whether the league should continue to allow its players to participate in the quadrennial Winter Games.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When the NHL went on hiatus for the Olympics earlier this month, a debate raged as to whether the league should continue to allow its players to participate in the quadrennial Winter Games.

After John Tavares injured his knee while suiting up for Team Canada in Sochi, it's an issue that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The image of Tavares writhing in pain on the Olympic ice was the realization of a nightmare scenario for the NHL and its owners. In an instant, the New York Islanders star not only saw his Olympics end but also was lost for the remainder of the NHL's regular season due to a partially torn MCL in his left knee.

Even with a healthy Tavares, the Islanders faced long odds to make the playoffs, but that misses the point. So does the fact the Isles are due financial relief for the loss of Tavares thanks to contract insurance paid for by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

At 23 years old, Tavares is one of the brightest young stars in an NHL landscape that is dominated by young stars. Tavares is supposed to be the player who will lead the star-crossed Islanders franchise back to respectability. He may still be able to lead the Isles to better days, but after what happened in Sochi, it seems like the club and its fans are destined to suffer for at least a little while longer.

The Islanders, however, weren't the only team to lose a valuable player while they were busy representing their country at the Winter Games. Tavares just happened to be the most recognizable face among the injured Olympians. Also suffering injuries of varying degrees were Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, New York Rangers leading scorer Mats Zuccarello, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin and Florida Panthers standout rookie Aleksander Barkov.

While not as bad as Tavares' torn knee, Zetterberg's back injury required surgery and it came at a terrible time for Detroit. The recovery time expects to keep Zetterberg sidelined right up until the end of the regular season and it could loom large for the Red Wings and head coach Mike Babcock, who is trying to get Detroit to its 23rd straight playoff appearance. Babcock, of course, coached Team Canada to its second straight gold medal in Sochi, but the task of getting to the postseason without his Swedish captain could prove even tougher.

Sometime between now and the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the league and the NHL Players' Association is going to have decide whether it's worth the risk to allow NHLers the right to represent their nations at the Olympics. When that time comes, you can be certain the cases of Tavares and Zetterberg will feature heavily in those debates.

Perhaps it's not the worst thing if the NHL's participation with the Olympics ends with Sochi 2014. The league is doing better than ever financially and no longer needs the Winter Games to sell its sport to the world, if you even believe the Olympics ever had that effect on the NHL product to begin with.

Some will say it will take a serious injury to a star player of Sidney Crosby's level to affect change when it comes to Olympic participation and the NHL. Clearly, Crosby suffering a catastrophic injury while donning Team Canada colors would garner more headlines, but the Tavares' injury is more than capable of changing minds in its own right.

Before Tavares, the prospect of losing a star player to serious injury at the Winter Games was little more than a hypothetical. After Sochi, however, the nightmare seems very real indeed.

RANDOM OLYMPIC THOUGHTS

- Another reason to scrap the NHL's Olympic break is: Do we really need to stop the season for two-plus weeks just to confirm that Canada is the greatest hockey nation in the world? I'm not sure if limiting Olympic participation to amateurs would even the playing field or not, but either way we can all agree Team Canada would still be prohibitive favorite, right?

- For me, the most anticlimactic story line of the Olympics was whether Russia could win hockey gold. I would have been shocked if they were able to claim bronze, let alone win the tournament. A fifth-place finish seemed about right for a team that boasted superstar NHLers Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, but with little depth to speak of at forward or defense.

- In the end, the Swedes were smothered by the formidable Canadian defense in the gold medal game, but it was still an impressive run to a silver medal, especially after losing Zetterberg to injury. It marked a return to the Olympic podium for Team Sweden after failing to medal four years ago at Vancouver. With a gold and a silver to his credit, Swedish goaltender Henrik Lundqvist would definitely like to add a Stanley Cup title with the New York Rangers to his already impressive resume.

- Teemu Selanne's last run at the Olympics ended with him winning his fourth Olympic medal. Fittingly, the man known as the "Finnish Flash" scored twice to help his country slam the United States, 5-0, in the bronze medal battle. Selanne will be 47 when the next Olympics rolls around, but the funny thing is he probably could still be a key part of Finland's team in 2018 if he wanted to be.

- Remember that exciting shootout battle between Russia and the United States in the preliminary round? Turns out that victory -- which was keyed by T.J. Oshie's star-making shootout performance -- was the high point of the tournament for the Americans. The U.S. squad scored 15 goals in three preliminary games, but never found the back of the net in the two games that mattered most. The United States never really had a chance to beat Canada despite only losing the semifinal game 1-0. The score was misleading because it was one of the more lopsided 1-0 losses you will ever see. However, the follow- up performance against Finland was even worse for the U.S. squad, and that's unfortunate because there would've been no shame in coming home with a bronze medal. Instead, the Americans seemed to lose interest once the Canadians dashed their gold medal dreams.

- For all the memorable moments created by the NHLers in Sochi, nothing approached the women's gold medal game for pure drama. Once again, it was Canada proving itself as the team to beat on the Olympic stage, as the U.S. women coughed up a 2-0 lead in the waning minutes of regulation en route to a 3-2 overtime loss. As an American, of course, it was heartbreaking to watch the U.S. women fall to Canada yet again at the Winter Games, but the game provided some of the most lasting images of the 2014 Olympics. Plain and simple, it was the best on-ice battle the Sochi Games had to offer.

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