From the moment the NHL announced in early April that the league wouldn’t be sending players to the Olympics, players and fans alike have hoped for a late agreement that would allow the world’s best players to participate in Pyeongchang.
There was a glimmer of hope when the IIHF suggested they’d continue to work to get the league to send players to the tournament. Next, when there was an absence of an NHL All-Star Game announcement, it seemed to suggest that there was an outside chance of Olympic participation. But now, after seemingly every option has been exhausted in the attempts to get the NHL to send players to South Korea, IIHF president Rene Fasel has made it clear that the dream of a best-on-best Olympics in 2018 is dead.
Speaking with Reuters this week, Fasel said that any chance of the NHL sending players “is now gone. We can tick that off the list.”
“We will have to look ahead to China and the Beijing 2022 Winter Games because there is an interest of the league and we have noted that,” Fasel continued, according to Reuters. “But logistically it is practically impossible for Pyeongchang. That train has left the station.”
While disappointing, Fasel’s admittance that the IIHF couldn’t manage to work out NHL participation isn’t altogether shocking. Despite the apparent efforts of the IIHF and International Olympic Committee, it seemed the NHL had no interest in budging from its stance that it was not in the league’s best interest to shut down operations for the nearly three-week period in February. But with Fasel resigning to the fact the NHL won’t be going, it does still raise questions about those players who aren’t all too willing to take the league’s resounding “no” for an answer.
Several players have been vocal about their disappointment in the league’s decision, as one could imagine. In a recent interview with ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, seven NHLers, including Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Seth Jones and Erik Karlsson, said the one change they’d make to the league is allowing players to go to the Olympics. Others, though, have been more firm in their distaste for the NHL’s decision. San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, for instance, said he “laughed” at a reported proposal of an extended CBA in exchange for Olympic participation, and in a piece for CBC’s Radio-Canada said he will spend the rest of his career “feeling frustration and hatred towards the NHL” for not sending players to Pyeongchang.
However, there may not be any player who has made clear his desire to play in the Olympics quite as much — or quite as often — as Washington Capitals captain and superstar Alex Ovechkin. From the moment the 2018 Games became a hot-button issue, Ovechkin has stated repeatedly that he will be suiting up for Team Russia. Not if the league allows it or if the league participates, mind you. He simply said he would be playing, period. And the day following the NHL’s announcement, he said that he was still going.
"I didn't change my mind and I won't," Ovechkin said, according to CBC. "I think the situation was the same before Sochi. They try to do some deals ... I'm pretty sure everything is going to be fine. They just want some big story about it.”
Ovechkin, as well as Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, had support from Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, too. When asked, Leonsis had said he would allow his players to participate if that was their choice, stating that he didn’t know how he could refuse to let the players go after all they’ve given to the organization. “I might get fined, I might get punished in some way, but I feel I'm in partnership with Nick and Braden and Alex,” Leonsis said in February, according to NHL.com.
Of course, it’s not quite that easy. While Leonsis could theoretically allow Ovechkin — or others — to leave the organization for a short span in February and head to Pyeongchang, it seems there’s a roadblock that will prevent any player under NHL contract from actually donning a national team jersey in the tournament. Fasel told Reuters that, “for some individuals who said they will come we will have to see how we will do it,” but comments to Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko indicate that there isn’t really much to be done.
Fasel told Eronko that it would be “very difficult” to allow Ovechkin to play, citing an NHL pact with the IIHF when it comes to honoring contracts. “For the moment we have a mutual agreement with the NHL on respecting the contracts,” Fasel told Eronko. “So If Ovechkin's contract doesn't allow him to play in the Olympics then I'd say he'd not be able to.”
Furthermore, it appears the Russian national team has accepted Ovechkin’s fate — and Vladislav Tretiak, president of the Russian Hockey Federation, suggested Wednesday that Ovechkin do the same. In an interview with Russian news outlet R-Sport, Tretiak said that there is nothing Ovechkin can do now but play for Washington next season. “He has to accept that,” Tretiak added.
And, likewise, it appears hockey fans worldwide also have to accept that no matter how hard they wish for it, it’s official: the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics will be played without the vast majority of the world’s best players.
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