PITTSBURGH – There’s a loose puck in the corner during an extremely physical grudge match Olympic game between Canada and Russia, and US$170 million worth of NHL talent is chasing it.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin arrive at the same instant, ice shavings flying in their paths. A violent collision occurs, a star goes down. An entire league holds its collective breath in fear.
It’s hockey ultimate nightmare: The Olympics, played before a vast worldwide audience that the NHL can’t begin to command during its season, are the end of a megastar’s career rather than the culmination of a lifelong quest for a gold medal.
Some players stubbornly refuse to weigh the potentially greater risk of injury in such a high-tempo tournament, others say they cannot play a sport so fast and fierce with any such worry in the back of their minds.
Still, every player heading to Vancouver in a week’s time likely is going there with two goals, not just one: Win a gold medal, and not get hurt.
“You’re not out there thinking, ‘I’m hitting this guy but not hitting that guy,”‘ said Russia defenceman Sergei Gonchar of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You’re going out there to win these games. You do everything possible to win these games.”
The risk of injury in Vancouver potentially is greater because games will be played on a regulation NHL-sized rink in the Canucks’ home arena rather than the wider international rink, where less contact occurs.
“This Olympics will be an even harder tempo and it’s going to be more physical because we’re going to be playing on a smaller ice surface,” Gonchar said. “But if you go on the ice and worry about that stuff, you won’t be at your best. And, obviously, playing at the Olympic games, you want to be at your best.”
Being at one’s best in the Olympics potentially means finding a teammate in harm’s way.
If the anticipated Russia-Canada game takes place, Crosby and Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin, last season’s scoring champion and Stanley Cup playoffs MVP, would be on opposing sides for the first time as NHL players.
Malkin already has displayed the edge that players take with them to an Olympics; he was suspended one game in 2006 for kicking Canada’s Vincent Lecavalier.
“It’s different, but it’s also going to be great,” Malkin said of opposing Crosby in a high-stakes game. “We’ll see who wins. I want to win, he wants to win.”
Players’ careers will be judged forever in their homelands by how they perform in these games, and there can be no letting up. This isn’t the Pro Bowl, where the physicality doesn’t approach the level of an NFL exhibition game.
As the salaries of stars increase, league owners are becoming reluctant to free up top talent for high-tempo games that feature Stanley Cup finals-like intensity and physicality. Ovechkin has a $124 million contract with the Washington Capitals, yet as many as six of the biggest and most stressful games he plays this year might not be in their uniform.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, understandably concerned, discussed the threat of injury with his captain. Ovechkin’s response? He could get hurt riding an exercise bike or during practice.
“You can’t expect anyone to let up or change their point of view because you play with them. I expect Gonch (Gonchar) to hit me just as he would hit anyone else on Team Canada and I would expect him to respect the same thing with me, too,” Crosby said.
“I don’t think he’s going into the corner thinking I’m going to let up on him and that’s the game we play. That’s the common understanding that we have, there’s nothing that you can really do to change that, that’s just the way it is.”
In Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Olympics, there is a similar thought as the Vancouver games approach: Please don’t let anyone get hurt, because a major injury might end any chance of the NHL sending its players to a fourth consecutive winter games.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said injury concerns will be a major consideration as the league weighs whether to shut down again for two weeks in late February, a prime time in the schedule when the NFL season is over and the NBA is only other major American sports league playing games.
Consider this: Wouldn’t the Indianapolis Colts be reluctant to allow Peyton Manning and Dwight Freeney to play if football had a World Cup-type competition? The Chicago Blackhawks, enjoying their best season in years, are sending a half-dozen players to Vancouver, and any injury could be disruptive.
In 2006, the Ottawa Senators won the Eastern Conference regular-season title but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs after goalie Dominik Hasek’s injury in Turin ended his season.
“A team that sends eight or nine players might come back a little more tired or banged-up than an NHL team that sends none or one or two,” commissioner Gary Bettman said.