By Tim Wharnsby
(Reuters) - The ice hockey world championship may not have all the best players but with the National Hockey League non-committal about future Olympic participation the yearly tournament could be about to receive a boost in importance.
Among the top players that will not be present when the tournament begins in Russia on Friday are Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin and Canadian Olympic hero Sidney Crosby, whose teams are currently battling each other in NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But many familiar names will be chasing world championship gold like Slovenia's Anze Kopitar and Russia's Pavel Datsyuk as well as top prospects Auston Mathews of the United States and Finland's Patrik Laine.
Despite NHL players participating in each of the last five Winter Games, there is a growing sense the North American league won't participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea due to a lack of money to cover player insurance and travel.
Adding to the uncertainty, the NHL re-booted the World Cup of Hockey, which will take place in Toronto later this year, but after that there could be a hole on the international schedule when it comes to countries competing in a best-on-best format.
That could give players a little more incentive to represent their country on the international stage even if it is not an Olympics.
The worlds will always be there for players who want to extend their season. For example, Kopitar's NHL campaign ended sooner than expected, but the forward is excited about building on Slovenia's quarter-final showing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"Considering that my father is the coach, it was easier to make the decision,” Kopitar said. “I have an opportunity to come to play for Slovenia and get together with the guys with who we achieved a great result in Sochi."
Canada enter the worlds as the defending champions. Last year, Crosby suited up for Canada and beat Ovechkin and Russia in the gold medal game. With the win, Crosby became the 26th member of the Triple Gold Club, players who have won Olympic gold, a world championship and Stanley Cup.
The 37-year-old Datsyuk, who is expected to announce this offseason that he will leave the NHL's Detroit Red Wings after 14 seasons to return home, will attempt to lead Russia to their first championship on home soil since 1986.
The tournament also will be a showcase for rising stars like Connor McDavid, fresh off his impressive NHL rookie campaign, and Matthews and Lain, who are the consensus top-two choices for next month's NHL Draft
Laine and the Finns have an opportunity to pull off a rare triple championship season after their junior-aged teams won the under-18 World Championship last month and the under-20 World Junior Championship in early January.
(Reporting by Tim Wharnsby in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)