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Missing the Olympics a missed opportunity (and misstep) for NHL?

Sure, the players get an All-Star Game, but is it enough to prevent a future lockout?

One week from today, Tampa will be the center of the hockey world.

The All-Star Game will be held at Amalie Arena. Players will smile for the cameras. They'll put on a fantastic show. Maybe they'll catch a bead or two from a Gasparilla parade.

But you can bet there are many All-Stars who would rather be packing their bags for next month's Olympics in South Korea. It's a dream that was dashed in April when the league announced it wouldn't be participating in the 2018 Games. For some, like Lightning veteran Anton Stralman, 31, this might have been their last chance to represent their country on the biggest stage.

"I don't think any of us will ever forget it," said Stralman, who won a gold medal for Sweden in May's World Championships. "I think all of us are pretty sour about it."

How sour? We'll find out in 2020 when the NHLPA can use its opt-out in the collective bargaining agreement to re-open negotiations. There are some that suggest another lockout is likely.

"I expect there will be one," Stralman said. "I'd be surprised if there isn't."
Stralman believes that because he feels that's been the tactic of owners and commissioner Gary Bettman, resulting in work stoppages in 1994, 2004 and 2012. There's still time, and the NHL hasn't ruled out returning to the Olympics in 2022 in China.

But there's a reason Lightning All-Star Steven Stamkos has called this All-Star Game bittersweet; its scheduling sealed the players' Olympics fate.  All-Star Games weren't held in Olympic years when the NHL started sending players in 1998.

"It's very tough, and I clearly feel for the players," Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said. "I know they want to be able to go and don't get many chances to represent their country, and it's tough for them to swallow.

"But I also see the owners' point of view — the injuries that could happen, the fact we get no special privileges from the (International Olympic Committee). We're kind of giving them assets for nothing.

"Do I think (the sour feeling) is going to linger? I really don't. The fact of the matter is that players are focused on the game, they want to do well for themselves, they care about their families. That's what they're focused on. Two years from now, when we look at the CBA, we'll see what happens. But I think (the Olympics decision) will be in the rearview mirror."

Will it?

RELATED: Why I love the NHL All-Star Game

• • •

Vinik alluded to some of the reasons why the league passed on Olympic participation.

There was concern over shutting the league down for three weeks (though that's what happened when the NHL sent players to the previous five Olympics). There's the risk of injury for some of the league's best (and highest-paid) stars.

There was initial conflict with the IOC on getting travel expenses and insurance paid for.

With the time difference between North America and the Games' host city, Pyeongchang, South Korea – the Eastern time zone is 14 hours behind –  hockey games will be televised in the middle of the night here, not great for  viewership.

But NHLPA chief Donald Fehr points out that Olympic hockey games will be in prime time in the Pacific Rim, where the league really wants to grow the game.

"It's a real marketing opportunity to take advantage of," Fehr said Friday in a phone conversation. "I'm not aware of any study that suggests the NHL ever lost any revenue by participating in the games."

Agent Allan Walsh said this would be perfect timing for NHL participation with the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nikita Kucherov primed to play in their first Olympics.

"If you've got compelling hockey going on in South Korea, in front of 1 billion people, you're basically getting a daily free television commercial in front of half the world," said Walsh, named by The Hockey News to its 100 "People of Power and Influence" list. "You look at the inroads the NBA made in Asia, the inroads MLB made in Asia, Japan and South Korea. The NHL is just asleep at the switch."

There's the less tangible, yet extremely important element when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences for players. Just ask the Lightning's Chris Kunitz, who has won four Stanley Cups but treasures his one Olympic gold, won with Canada in 2014.

"Going to the Olympics is one of the best moments of my career," Kunitz said. "Winning gold in that moment, for two weeks, time really stood still. I'll cherish it forever."

RELATED: Why I hate the NHL All-Star Game

• • •

What bothers players as much as not going to the Olympics is how the league used the event as a bargaining chip.

Lightning wing Alex Killorn, the team's NHLPA rep, said last summer the league offered players the chance to go to the 2018 Olympics — if they agreed to not use their opt-out clause in 2020 and extend the current CBA until 2022.

"I don't know their reason for it, maybe it was a bargaining chip, who knows?" Killorn said. "But either way, I know a lot of players weren't happy with it."

Walsh said that's led to some mistrust from players when it comes to Bettman, suggesting the league could use some "new blood" on their side.

"They certainly made the players feel that the NHL's position and reasoning for not going to the Olympics was more or less contrived," Walsh said. " 'We don't like shutting our league down for three weeks and don't get any benefit from being in the Olympics, even though we've gone the last five. But we'll go if you extend the CBA.' "

There will be many other issues on the table when the next CBA negotiations come, escrow, revenue and rule changes possibly among them. And Fehr is quick to point out it is premature to predict how those talks will turn out.

"A lot can happen between now and then," Fehr said. "I can say a lot of ice is going to melt by then, it'll freeze and melt again. We'll see how it plays out."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.

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