By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia Feb 24 (Reuters) - If the Sochi Games are to be the last for the National Hockey League (NHL), then the world's best players brought their Olympic curtain down in thrilling but controversial style.
Canada brought the competitive curtain down on the Games in impressive fashion, capping an unbeaten run through the tournament by sweeping past Sweden 3-0 as they retained their title.
But outside of Canada, the gold medal game is likely to remembered for the chaotic events surrounding the finish when it was announced that Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom, who plays in the NHL for the Washington Capitals, had been forced to miss the final due to a failed dope test.
The ham-handed handling of the drug test, the way it was managed and announced and Sweden's fury about it, is likely to add further stress to an already tense relationship between the International Olympic (IOC) Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the NHL, as the league considers ending their Olympic relationship.
"Our opinion is that IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history," said an enraged Swedish general manager Tommy Boustedt. "This can further jeopardise participation of NHL players in Olympic Games because I know that both that NHL and NHLPA are incredibly upset about this."
The NHL was quick to make their feelings felt issuing a statement making it clear that in their eyes Backstrom had done nothing illegal and would not face sanction, putting the league at odds with the IOC.
"It is our further understanding that the positive test was the result of a common allergy medication taken by the player knowingly, with the approval of the team doctor and without the intention of gaining an illegal or improper performance-enhancing benefit," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a statement. "In addition, the specific substance that resulted in the positive test is not currently on the league's prohibited substances list."
While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was full of praise for the Olympic experience during his visit to Sochi, the league has refused to commit to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang as they consider ending their Olympic involvement after five Games.
The NHL has refused to make a long-term commitment and indications are that team owners no longer believe the worldwide exposure they get from competing on the Olympic stage is worth shutting down operations for two weeks in the middle of the season and handing over their most valuable assets (the players) to the IOC.
Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider has been among the most vocal dissenters, saying before the start of the Sochi Olympics, "I hate them".
Snider is likely to find plenty of support among his peers with several teams getting back damaged goods, like the New York Islanders who will be without John Tavares, the NHL's third leading scorer, after he sustained a season-ending knee injury during Canada's game against Latvia.
Certainly Canada have benefited from the presence of the NHL's best, winning three of the five gold medals on offer since joining the Olympic programme at the 1998 Nagano Games.
NHL players have also made ice hockey one of the Games' hottest tickets, particularly in Sochi where teams played in front of packed houses at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The tournament produced pleasant surprises and massive disappointment, none bigger than host Russia's crushing quarter-final exit.
Russia President Vladimir Putin's plans for a golden finish to the his own Games were cancelled when Finland claimed a party pooping quarter-final win.
There was more disappointment for Russian hockey fans when their team faced off against the United States in a rematch of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic 'Miracle on Ice.
The rematch took place in an electric atmosphere and there was little between the teams, as shown by the game finishing level at 2-2 after overtime. It then took the Americans no less than eight rounds of an epic shootout to snatch it.
While there was disappointment across Russia the celebrations raged in Slovenia, a country with just 148 senior men's players and seven ice rinks, became the underdog darlings of the Games as they reached the quarter-finals in their first Olympic campaign.
As the sport's North American superpowers go back to consider whether they will deign to grace future Games with their presence, the reaction of the Slovenians was an uplifting reminder of what the Olympics still mean to most of the world.
"We definitely made history just being here...it feels remarkable," said Slovenian forward Anze Kopitar.
"We've been fortunate enough to write this fairytale, it's hard to believe." (Editing by Mitch Phillips)