Alex Ovechkin has always said he’s going to the Olympics no matter what, but he and other Capitals stars think the NHL is still willing to negotiate.
The most outspoken advocate for NHL players participating in the Olympics, and the American hero from Sochi both believe the league is bluffing when it says it will not be participating in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.
Not that it matters to Alex Ovechkin anyway. When asked about the NHL’s decision to pull out of Olympic competition, he reiterated that he fully intends on playing for Russia despite the league’s decision. And he can do so knowing that he has the full support of Ted Leonsis, who owns both the Washington Capitals and his contract. But Ovechkin is not convinced the league has completely closed the door on this matter.
“I think it was the same before Sochi, they tried to do some deals. I’m pretty sure everything is going to be fine,” Ovechkin said. “There’s still a long time to make a decision and they can say whatever. Next year’s schedule is not out there yet…but still there’s a long time and everything can change, but in my mind, like I said I’m going, it doesn’t matter.”
Fellow Capitals star T.J. Oshie, whose four-goal shootout performance against Russia in Sochi earned him a tweet from U.S. president Barack Obama and an appearance on The Today Show, also thinks the league will come to its senses on the Olympic issue.
“Even though we knew this could be a reality, for some reason I just feel like we’re going to find a way to resolve it,” Oshie said. “I just can’t imagine us not going.”
Kevin Shattenkirk, who also played for the American team in 2014, also believes the NHL is still willing to negotiate. Whether that’s with the NHL Players’ Association for collective bargaining concessions in return for player participation or with the International Olympic Committee for a more palatable deal from a financial and promotional standpoint is uncertain. But Shattenkirk is convinced the league has some ulterior motives.
“Now it just seems like they want to use it as a bargaining chip and that’s wrong,” Shattenkirk said. “I mean, that’s not what the Olympics is for. The reason we went there, or at least started going, was to grow the game and show the world how great it is when you get the best players in the world playing against each other. That’s what we’re trying to do with the World Cup and that’s going to take time, but this is right in the prime of it and the last Olympics was fantastic. Just to dismiss it, really without much conversation, is tough.”
It’s hard to say where the NHL stands on this. It’s not as though there is no precedent for the league changing its mind. For example, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stood in front of the world on Feb. 13, 2005 and declared the 2004-05 season dead. But when your trusty correspondent asked how final that decision was and whether the league would still be open to negotiating, it kicked off a renegotiation sparked by late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider that almost succeeded in saving the season. The NHL doesn’t sound, at least at the moment, as though it’s interested in drawing this out longer.
“We don’t expect that there will be any reason to revisit the decision that’s been made,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to THN.com.
The Capitals are definitely one of the more international dressing rooms in the NHL. They have Canadians, Americans, Russians, Swedes (including one born in Austria), a German, and a Dane on their roster. And there was a palpable sense of frustration among the players on that team over this announcement. The ones who spoke after practice Tuesday talked mostly about the missed opportunity, particularly with the next two Olympics in Asia. One of the reasons most frequently put forth for pulling out of the Olympics is that it didn’t grow the game globally in any tangible way. That might be the case, but it’s the NHL’s job to follow up on its Olympic participation in a meaningful way and it has not done that. And as Oshie pointed out, the growth has been difficult to document. From his experience, he saw a bump after his shootout performance in Sochi.
“I’ve met people and they’ve contacted me on Twitter and there have been hundreds of people since the Olympics and they’ve told me they didn’t watch hockey until then or they didn’t play hockey,” Oshie said. “And now they’re playing in a men’s league or their kid is playing now because they watched that game. And that was just for me.”
And here’s where things could get a little dicey. Leonsis has gone on the record as saying that he supports the Olympics, so the players on his roster will be popular choices for Olympic teams. Braden Holtby said he respects the choices his teammates make, but he will stay with the Capitals if NHL players don’t go to the Olympics. What could happen is the league would likely pass an edict saying teams cannot release their players for the Olympics, a move the NHLPA would likely grieve on the basis that the league cannot dictate to individual teams what they can do with their own players. So as long as the owner gives his blessing to a player, he would probably be able to go.
“We don’t need to address that issue now,” Daly said via email. “It will be dealt with at an appropriate time.”
Still, that will be a small minority of players. Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov have all said they will go to Pyeonchang, something Kuzentsov confirmed.
“If Russia needs us, of course, it’s in the heart always for Russian people,” Kuznetsov said, tapping his chest. “We will see. Maybe they will let us go. Orly, Ovie and me, we always talk about that. If you don’t make the playoffs, you always go to play World Championship even if you’re hurt because it’s in the heart. That’s why we play hockey.”
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