If Alex Ovechkin’s dedication to suiting up for the Russian national team wasn’t obvious from his scrambling across the pond to play in the 2015 World Championship, his commitment to playing in the 2018 Olympics should be all the evidence you need.
In an interview Wednesday, Ovechkin said that no matter the NHL’s decision on whether NHL players will be allowed to play at the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he’ll be pulling on the Russian sweater at the tournament.
"The same situation was with the (2014) Sochi Games, they said NHL could not be allowed to come," Ovechkin told Russian outlet TASS. "I hope the sides will reach an agreement.
“Anyway, I and other players will definitely come [to the 2018 Olympics].”
Back in November, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston that a decision would be made in short order regarding the future of NHL players at the Olympics. However, here we are three-quarters of a calendar year later without an answer, and players like Ovechkin seem to have made up their own minds.
Certainly, a decision such as sending a portion of your athletes across the world to a tournament that’s not related to the league isn’t an easy one to make, but if Ovechkin’s comments don’t make it clear enough, the players want to play. As NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said, “there are a whole bunch of players who want to play, and the ones who don't like the break.”
It’s not just about the ability to play in an international tournament, either. The league is bringing back the World Cup of Hockey next year, but even that doesn’t seem to have quelled the players’ interest in the Olympics. The option is present for a large number of players to join their national World Championship squads, but several turn down the opportunity at season’s end to rest up for another NHL campaign. The Olympics is a different stage — compared to other international tournaments, it feels as though it matters more. That’s likely part of the reason why NHL players want to go: they’ve done the World Championships, they’ll participate in the World Cup, but nothing compares to the bright lights of the Olympics.
One of the major concerns from a league perspective is — and always has been — what happens in the case of an injury, such as the MCL tear New York Islanders captain John Tavares suffered at the 2014 games that sidelined him for the remainder of the NHL campaign. The injury caused Islanders GM Garth Snow to go on a tirade, saying, “It's a joke. (The IIHF and IOC) want all the benefits from NHL players in Olympics and don't want to pay when our best player gets hurt.” Snow added that the Islanders had, “lost (their) best player and he wasn't playing for us.”
But the players seem willing to risk injury for the chance to pull on their national team sweater during the two-week Olympic tournament, and it’s evident that some, no matter what the league’s ruling, will attempt to head to the 2018 Pyeongchang games. That includes Ovechkin, who is undeniably one of the league’s brightest stars.
Whether or not the league backs up Ovechkin’s stance is yet to be seen, but don’t be surprised if the ‘Great 8’ is in Pyeongchang, with or without his NHL mates.