Could NHL Players Bolt for the 2018 Olympics?
If the ongoing World Cup of Hockey proves to be a success for the NHL, the league brain trust could decide against participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Some of its top players, however, could have other ideas.
Last week, Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin stated his intent to play for Russian in the PyeongChang Olympics, even if the NHL doesn’t participate. He even hinted he might not be in the NHL by then, though the smile on his face when he said that suggests he was being facetious.
This isn’t the first time Ovechkin’s said he’d play in the Olympics even if the NHL did not. When the league was dragging its feet over its (eventual) participation in the 2012 Sochi Games, Ovechkin also threatened to skate in that tournament.
The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell reported other NHL players, including Team Canada’s Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos, Team USA’s Patrick Kane and Team Europe’s Anze Kopitar expressed their willingness to skate in the Olympics and any future World Cup of Hockey tournaments. However, Campbell adds this issue is “not a hill on which they’re prepared to die.”
In other words, if the NHL opts out of future Olympics participation, this won’t become a sticking point for the players in future collective bargaining.
Campbell points out NHL owners could be getting tired shutting down the league for two weeks to allow their best players to participate in a tournament that they don’t directly profit from. He also notes insuring the players contracts during the Olympics is an issue for the owners.
Regarding Ovechkin’s desire to play in the Olympics Campbell notes the Capitals star had the full blessing back then of team owner Ted Leonsis. Given the points raised in Campbell’s article, however, one wonders if Leonsis will fully back his captain this time around.
While the majority of players could honor the league’s possible decision not to participate in the PyeongChang Games, Ovechkin’s comments raises some interesting questions.
If a superstar of Ovechkin’s caliber opts to participate in the 2018 Olympics, could the Capitals suspend Ovechkin? Will the league? Could the NHLPA attempt to pressure Ovechkin not to go?
Could Ovechkin decide to retire at the end of this season to skate for Russia in Pyeongchang? Does Leonsis, the NHL and NHLPA want to risk driving one of hockey’s biggest stars out of hockey’s premier pro league over his determination to play in the Olympics?
Could other Russian stars, such as Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, Chicago’s Artemi Panarin and Ovechkin’s Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, follow his lead? Could notable players from other countries do the same?
If so, how will the league react? Do they risk a PR nightmare by having some of their best players bolt for the Olympics in midseason?
If it’s solely Ovechkin going to PyeongChang, and if Leonsis approves, the league could determine this is simply a Capitals issue and allow them to deal with it accordingly. After all, it’s only the Capitals that will be affected by his two- or three-week absence. It’s their willingness to accept the risk he could be sidelined by an injury in that tournament.
If more players wish to participate, the league could leave it up to the team owners to decide if they’ll allow it.
That creates the problem, of course, of a player deciding to play in PyeongChang against the wishes of his NHL team. Suspension by the team or the league is the likely outcome, with the player potentially prevented from playing the remainder of the NHL season. The player might be willing to risk that, but will his NHL club?
Then there’s the possibility of a player opting for NHL retirement, which could spell the end of his NHL career. That would be an extreme measure, one most probably won’t take. Still, it’s an option. Is it one the Capitals are willing to risk with Ovechkin? Are other clubs willing to chance it with their top players?
If the NHL decides against Olympic participation in 2018, it’ll likely be next summer before we learn the course of action those players keen to skate in the Olympics might take. Soon afterward, we’ll also learn the possible consequences for their actions and the potential fallout for the league.