As the best players on the planet prepare for the World Cup of Hockey, they’re doing so not really knowing what all of it means. After all, of the 184 players in the tournament, only 11 of them played in the World Cup the last time it was held 12 years ago.
And they’re doing so not exactly knowing what the future holds for them in terms of playing in the Olympics in the future. Well, except for Alex Ovechkin, who made headlines in 2014 when he vowed to play for Team Russia regardless of whether or not the NHL would be in Sochi, said he plans to be in Pyeongchang, South Korea in two years.
“My decision is the same,” Ovechkin said on World Cup media day Thursday. “I don’t know what’s going to happen right now, but we just have to wait what they say and we’ll see. It’s a situation where you don't know what’s going to happen. But obviously I said I’m going to play.”
When Ovechkin threatened to go rogue four years ago, he did so with the blessing of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. A lot has changed since then, though. You get the distinct feeling that the ranks of NHL owners are growing tired of halting their league for two weeks every year and risking having their best players hurt in a tournament in which they don’t directly profit. Add to that the league’s responsibility for insuring players’ contracts in the Olympics and the appetite to continue to go has waned in a big way. There is also a sense that the players still very much want to play in the Olympics, even if it means they are called upon every two years to represent their countries. But with respect to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, it’s not a hill on which they’re prepared to die.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who will represent Canada for the fifth time as an NHLer in the World Cup, is of two minds on the matter. He loves the idea of playing both tournaments in theory, but wonders if it can be possible in practical terms, particularly for players whose teams go on long playoff runs.
“I think the Olympics still being a special thing for the players, that has to hold some ground somewhere,” Toews said. “I’m not completely discounting this tournament. Someone asked me about the tradition of the World Cup and, to be honest with you, there’s not necessarily much of a tradition. For me, I grew up watching the World Juniors and the Olympics and that was a special thing. Until it becomes a consistent thing…I think that’s when it starts to become a tradition.”
And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the rub. The Olympics is a vehicle for growing the game. The World Cup is a vehicle for growing the coffers of the NHL and NHL Players’ Association. And if the league and NHLPA want the World Cup to be a premier event, logic would dictate that it doesn’t make much sense for them to continue playing in the Olympics. Then again, perhaps they skip Pyeongchang and jump back in when they’re held in Beijing in 2020. (“I would say anything is possible,” said an executive close to the situation.)
“It’s a tough thing,” Toews said. “The season is tough and long enough as it is and you have top guys playing in the World Championship and the Stanley Cup playoffs. At what point is it too much and you’re watering down not only the players who are representing their countries at these events, but also maybe affecting the level of play with the amount of hockey guys are playing. I think at some point you have to draw the line.”
Toews, as one would expect, is taking a practical approach to all of this. There are others who feel the best players in the world could do both every two years, but it’s one thing to say that and another thing entirely to do it. Toews’ Chicago teammate Patrick Kane, for one, would welcome the opportunity.
“I think everyone still wants to play in the Olympics, that’s for sure,” Kane said. “I would be happy to participate in both. I don’t see a problem with that. As a player, you’re always happy to represent your country any chance you get.”
And Anze Kopitar, a player who has to add the responsibility of simply qualifying to play in the Olympics to all that hockey, doesn’t think it is too much of a good thing. And he’s not even playing for his own country in this tournament. “The sense is, in my opinion, the guys want to play in the Olympics,” Kopitar said. “I just think guys are proud to represent their countries and I don’t think at any point that it’s too much. You always come and want to play with your buddies.”
Steven Stamkos, who missed out on playing in the last Olympics because of a broken leg, is clearly in the camp of having NHLers continue to play in the Games. “I think the more tournaments the better,” Stamkos said. “I don’t think you want to drown the aura of these tournaments by having so many of them, but if you can have a World Cup and Olympics and still be competitive…It’s a pretty cool experience in anyone’s life to go to the Olympics. I don’t think I’ve heard any player say, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ ”
Much of it will probably depend on how this tournament does. There is talk of a clear profit of at least $60 million, split equally between the players and owners. If that’s the case, the NHLPA would get $30 million and each team would get $1 million each. It doesn’t seem like that much when you break it down to that, but make no mistake, if the NHL pulls out of the Olympics, it will be the decision of the owners. The players have made it clear they still want to play.
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