Ovechkin and the 2018 Winter Olympics
The NHL recently announced all players under league contracts cannot participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That could force Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin to choose between continuing his NHL career or pursuing Olympic gold for Russia.
Ovechin, 31, made no secret of his desire to skate for his home country in the Pyeongchang Games. “Somebody going to tell me I don’t go, I don’t care, I just go,” he said in April.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis signaled his willingness to allow his captain to take part. However, that was prior to the league’s recent decision.
Ever the optimistic, Ovechkin expressed his belief of a last-minute solution allowing NHL players to go to South Korea. That, however, seems increasingly remote.
Earlier this summer, a rumor was reportedly floated among some Russian NHL players claiming the league and the PA were in super-secret discussions to work out an Olympic deal. The league’s recent announcement should crush that speculation.
The best chance for a resolution was last November, when league commissioner Gary Bettman proposed extending the current collective bargaining agreement by three years to 2025 in exchange for Olympic participation, along with some other international goodies such as further World Cup of Hockey tournaments. The PA, unhappy with high escrow payments under the current CBA, refused.
Since then, there’s no indication of further negotiations between the two sides. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly repeatedly stated the league won’t take part in the Pyeongchang Olympics.
If Ovechkin, or any other player under NHL contract for 2017-18, wants to represent their country at the Pyeongchang Games, their options are limited.
Players loaned to European teams are apparently exempt from the league ban because they’re no longer under NHL contracts. However, it’s unlikely the league will let that be used as a loophole for team owners to allow their top talent to go to Pyeongchang.
An easier route could be following the example of Ilya Kovalchuk and retire from the NHL. That’s how Kovalchuk got out of his long-term contract with the New Jersey Devils in 2013, allowing him to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
If Ovechkin chooses that option, it’ll be years before he could return to the NHL as a free agent. Doing so before age 35 requires the approval of the other NHL team owners, some of whom might not be amenable to that notion.
A premature NHL retirement by Ovechkin would carry more weight that Kovalchuk’s departure. He’s “The Great 8”, the long-time face of the Capitals and among the league’s most recognizable stars. It would be a disappointing end to the NHL career of this generation’s most exciting goal scorer and one of the greatest snipers in league history. His departure would certainly hurt the Capitals short-term hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.
It would also be a risky move for Ovechkin. Not only would he be prematurely concluding his NHL career, he would also be walking away from a guaranteed contract with an average annual value of $9.5 million running through 2020-21. It could also adversely affect his endorsement deals, especially in North America.
Ovechkin would automatically become the KHL’s biggest star and highest-paid player. However, he’d be joining a less competitive league with a well-documented history of financial difficulties.
With Ovechkin in the lineup, Russia would be the favorite to win gold in men’s hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Assuming Russia wins that tournament against inferior opposition, it would be considered a tainted victory in the eyes of the hockey community. Even with Ovechkin, it’s possible Russia could once again fall short of Olympic glory.
It’s also doubtful other NHL stars would follow his lead. While most players are keen to take part in the 2018 Winter Olympics, they’re unlikely to walk away from their lucrative contracts. In the end, multi-million dollar contracts are more valuable than Olympic gold.
All of this, of course, is merely speculation. Since making his comments back in April, Ovechkin’s given no firm indication that he’ll abandon his NHL career to chase Olympic gold for Russia.
That decision, however, could be coming soon.