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Those million-dollar athletes? They do care about the Olympics

Patrick Kane has competed in two Olympics for Team USA -- 2010 in Vancouver and 2014 in Sochi. AP Photo/Petr David Josek

CHICAGO -- Patrick Kane was still eight years short of being born when the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Olympic hockey team shook the world, while Marcus Kruger was just 3 years old for one of the greatest moments in Sweden's Olympic history. But the Blackhawks teammates say much of their hockey upbringing was based on the two events.

"That was a little too early for me to remember, but I can't even tell you how many times I've watched that scene when Peter Forsberg scored the winning goal [to start the seventh round of the gold medal-clinching shootout against Canada in the 1994 Winter Games]," Kruger said. "That's something we're all going to carry with us."

For Kane, it was the 2004 movie "Miracle" that gave him the "whole backstory" of America's greatest Olympic hockey triumph.

The Blackhawks dressing room is nothing if not rich in Olympic tradition. Ten Chicago players representing five different countries participated in the 2014 Winter Games, eight of whom are still on the team. And even on the eve of their first-round playoff series against Nashville, they didn't mind talking about the NHL's announcement last week that the league would not be participating in the 2018 Olympics.

Well, most didn't mind.

"The Olympics aren't important for me right now, the playoffs are," Duncan Keith said.

He certainly could be forgiven his grumpiness as the Hawks' defenseman and his teammates are intent on erasing the memory of last year's first-round exit against St. Louis in seven games. But Keith, a member of Canada's gold medal-winning 2010 and 2014 Olympic teams, said last week he was undecided about whether or not he would stand by the league's decision. And the prospect of missing the Olympics can soften even the most focused of NHL dressing rooms.

"Playing for your country, there's no better feeling than that," Kruger said. "And having had the chance to be there in Sochi and play for [Sweden], it was one of the best experiences I've ever had. Hearing your national anthem and playing the game, it's something special."

At one time, the prospect of professional athletes in the Olympics seemed a joke and an affront to the Olympic ideal. Why would a bunch of multimillionaires even care about participating? But the international flavor of pro sports -- 16 different countries are represented on the NHL's 2016-17 rosters; a record-tying 18 on major league baseball teams and a record 41 in the NBA -- make each locker room a pseudo Olympic Village in itself. And there is no mistaking the national pride exhibited when the subject of the Olympics comes up.

"I think everyone grows up watching the Olympics," Kane said. "A lot of us at our age and our generation grew up watching NHL players playing in the Olympics too, so it was fun -- the highest level of competition you can be at. You're playing for your country, there's a lot of pride in that."

For many athletes, the chance to wear their nation's colors supersedes all else, memories of entire towns huddled around TVs when their countries were competing during an indelible part of their childhoods.

For Marian Hossa, a four-time Olympian for Slovakia, the Games were always must-see viewing while growing up. "The Olympics were so much fun because it was different and not just hockey," he said. "But obviously, when there was a hockey game on, everybody watched it."

It is the appeal of a worldwide audience, players have been saying this past week, that should make Olympic participation a no-brainer for the NHL, despite the 17-day break in schedule it would create. And the risk of injury is shrugged off like the average gash above the eye.

"For younger players especially to experience it, I think would be huge for them," Hossa said. "It would be bad for hockey if we don't end up going, but especially for the young guys ..."

The notion of that Olympic influence was confirmed by Kruger, who said he dreamed first of representing his country and then playing in the NHL.

"That's a big part of how I got into hockey, watching when Sweden won the gold in '94 without the pros," he said. "But it's good marketing for the sport. Everyone is watching it, everyone is caring about it. It's sad if all the best players can't be there. All the players here would love to be in one."

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said last week he didn't care what the NHL decided, calling its announcement "a bluff" and vowing "I'm still going."

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist echoed Kruger's sentiments about the marketing opportunity wasted.

"But most of all," Lundqvist tweeted, "[it's] disappointing for all the players that can't be part of the most special adventure in sports."

Kane smiled through post-practice exhaustion Wednesday as he remembered the first time he represented the United States. "I remember going to the World Championships at 17 years old and being part of that and how much fun and how cool it was at that age," he said, "so you can imagine how cool it was being there and then doing it at the Olympics."

In his first Olympic Games, in Vancouver in 2010, the U.S. won the silver medal and Kane scored three goals and had two assists in six games. But instead, the former No. 1 overall draft pick, who had less than two months earlier signed a 5-year, reported $31.5 million contract extension, now remembers the wonder with which he viewed the experience.

"You're watching all these great athletes do different events and get a lot of media and a lot of attention, and then you just see them walking around like regular people throughout the athletes' village ... you become a fan."

He recalled going with his U.S. teammates to watch the halfpipe event in snowboarding and having the "different experience" of seeing fellow Blackhawks riding their bikes through the Olympic grounds with their own countrymen before reuniting back home and winning the Stanley Cup title that season.

Kane also remembered watching the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and his hometown hero Dominik Hasek, then-goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres, "doing amazing things for the Czech Republic, so it was fun to watch and keep tabs on him, and you almost found yourself rooting for him throughout that tournament," he said. "I think that was the first time I saw NHL players in the Olympics, so it was different to watch pro players not play for the cause but join together and play for their countries."

Presumably, it is what we want from professional athletes, a cause bigger than themselves and their contracts. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews joined others last week in accusing the league of making the decision not about the game but about money and "what they can get out of us when the next [collective bargaining agreement] negotiation rolls around."

For players like Kruger, who remembered the thrill as a 7-year-old boy of being allowed to watch Sweden's Olympic hockey games on television in school, money doesn't factor in.

"I remember watching, and then you'd go out and play outdoor hockey without skates and a ball," he said. "I think the Olympics is really important for the sport and growing the sport in other parts of the world that doesn't get to see many NHL games."

Since Nagano, 706 NHL players have participated in the Winter Olympics. It is a tradition they are clearly not happy about giving up.

"When you have that honor and that opportunity to be one of the few players to represent [your country]," Kane said, "you really don't want to pass that up."