Alex Ovechkin and other players aren’t so sure the NHL’s decision to skip the Winter Olympics in South Korea next year is final.
The Washington Capitals superstar on Tuesday reiterated his intention to represent Russia next February, calling the league’s decision a “bluff.” Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who won gold with Canada in Sochi in 2014, wondered if the announcement was part of the league’s negotiating “tactics.” Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche suggested it could simply be “posturing.”
The NHL insisted Monday that the matter is “officially closed” as it slammed the door on the Olympics for the first time since 1994. But a host of questions remain, from how national teams will fill their rosters to just how the league will deal with players like Ovechkin who plan to go anyway. Most players know nothing of the days when the NHL wasn’t part of the Games, so the news that they won’t get that chance in Pyeongchang didn’t sit well at rinks around North America.
Swedish forward Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators called it a “terrible decision” that he hopes changes. Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby echoed Mike Babcock, his coach for consecutive Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, by calling it disappointing.
“When you begin negotiations and things like that, I really thought something was going to be able to get worked out and unfortunately that’s not the case,” Crosby said. “From what I heard it was kind (of) typical negotiations, then it kind of came out of nowhere (Monday) with the announcement.”
Crosby said there’s “always that possibility” that the door remains open for a deal to get worked out. Statements by the NHL Players’ Association, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee made no references to continued negotiations, however, and the NHL said previous talks had gone nowhere on issues believed to include better marketing tied to the Olympics — something the IOC allows only for top top-tier sponsors.
The quality of competition certainly will suffer next winter, but just what NHL players can do about it isn’t clear.
“I’m curious if some of these guys are going to go,” 1980 gold-medal-winning U.S. captain Mike Eruzione said. “Ovechkin says he’s going. Will Patrick Kane say he’s going? Will Sidney say he’s going? Will Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel — some of these great young players that play now — are they going to say, ‘The (heck) with you, I’m going?’ That’s going to be really interesting.”
American winger Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild predicts a lot of controversy if players go to South Korea anyway against the NHL’s wishes and possibly those of their owners. Czech winger Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers called it a no-win situation because players will either be abandoning their NHL teams or unable to help their national teams.
The NHL hasn’t yet decided whether to allow individual teams to let players go on a case-by-case basis. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in February he expects to be punished if he allows Ovechkin and other players go but would be fine with that. Crosby said he hasn’t yet thought about whether he’d go to the Olympics anyway.
Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche said Tuesday he’d consider pulling an Ovechkin and going but doesn’t expect this to be the end of debate.
Hockey Canada and USA Hockey get millions each year from the NHL, making it difficult to imagine many North American players under contract in the league would be allowed on those rosters.
There’s nothing in the collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing Olympic participation, though that could change if owners or players opt out at their next opportunity in September 2019. For now there’s nothing in the CBA barring players from leaving their teams — potentially on unpaid suspensions — to go, so Ovechkin isn’t budging.
“Somebody going to tell me, like, don’t go, I don’t care — I just go,” he said.