By Peter Schwartz
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I love hockey.

More importantly, I love hockey when it’s played at the highest level possible. With the NHL players taking part in the Olympics, we’re about to see some extraordinary hockey over the next week-and-a-half.

The 2010 gold-medal game between the United States and Canada will go down as one of the greatest hockey games ever, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it happened again this year.

But unlike four years ago when the Olympics were in North America, this year’s games are in Russia, where the time difference has the games starting early in the morning here on the East Coast. I love hockey, but I’m not changing my sleep patterns to watch this.

Especially since Kyle Okposo of the Islanders was snubbed from the United States team. Yeah, I’m still pretty ticked off about that!

Anyway, despite the great hockey that is about to go down, I think the time has come for the NHL to refrain from shutting down its season and stop sending its players to the Olympics. It’s time to starting giving the Olympic dream back to college and junior-hockey players and see what these young athletes can do on the international stage.

I’ve been fairly lucky as a sports fan in my life.

I saw the Islanders win four straight Stanley Cups and enjoyed the Yankees winning seven World Series titles. But to this day, the greatest sporting event that I’ve ever seen, either in person or on television, was watching the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey team win the gold medal.

It was hard to believe. A bunch of college kids knocking off the Soviet Union in the medal round and then finishing off the “Miracle On Ice” a couple of days later. I’m not saying that it would ever happen again, but with the NHL stars wearing the “USA” jerseys, we’ll never have an opportunity to give it a try.

Somewhere out there could be the next Jim Craig standing on his head making saves to preserve a one-goal lead. Or there could be some kid skating around thinking that maybe he can be Mike Eruzione scoring a big goal.

It’s time to let the kids try to live the Olympic dream!

It’s also time for the NHL to stop shutting down its season for three weeks. Let’s be hones: Does playing in the Olympics really create more fans for the NHL? I’m sure that non-NHL fans are watching the games in the Olympics, but how many of them are buying tickets when the NHL season starts up again?

I’m guessing not many, so let’s stop catering to those who don’t care about the NHL and let’s make the league the best it can be — and that means an uninterrupted season.

It’s only been a few days, but I miss the NHL. And I think if you canvas fans around the league, they would prefer to not have to wait three weeks to watch games on television or go to games in person. I’ll fill the void by taking in a minor-league game next week, but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Having said that, I do think the league should showcase the best players in the world, and I’m not talking about the All-Star Game. While the college and junior players are representing their countries in the Olympics, the NHL players can do the same if the league would just go back to something that was successful in the past.

They should go back to holding the Canada Cup or World Cup of Hockey.

This type of format could be held on a regular basis every two, three or four years during the summer before training camp starts, or have it bleed into training camps. The games could be spread around NHL cities who bid on hosting the games.

I went to both games at Madison Square Garden during the 1996 World Cup of Hockey — as well as the semifinal game between Canada and Sweden in Philadelphia — and the hockey was amazing. Then, in the best of three finals, the United States stunned Canada, winning the series two games to one.

While I hope that the Olympic hockey tournament is a smashing success this year, I’m hoping that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, league officials and the players’ association will come to the realization that the best decision going forward is to pull the plug on Olympic involvement.

The NHL game is great, and there are other ways to help celebrate the sport during the season without shutting it down.

Here’s hoping for another miracle and some great NHL-caliber international action before the season starts up again!

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