Olympic Collision Course for Ovechkin and the NHL?
Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin wants to play for Russia’s Men’s Hockey Team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. However, the NHL’s refusal to participate in those Games could force the Capitals captain to choose between the league and his country.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently insisted the league won’t reconsider its decision not to send players to the Pyeonchang Games. He also denied speculation of quiet, ongoing discussions on the matter with the NHL Players Association and the International Ice Hockey Federation.
“I know that there have been a variety of comments either from Rene Fasel of the International Ice Hockey Federation or from representatives of the players’ association suggesting that this is still an open issue,” said Bettman. “It is not and has not been. I hope that was definitive enough.”
In April, Ovechkin stated his intent to take part in the 2018 Games, dismissing the notion of the league’s refusal to participate.
“I didn’t change my mind and I won’t,” Ovechkin said. “I think the situation was the same before Sochi [in 2014]. They try to do some deals … I’m pretty sure everything is going to be fine. They just want some big story about it.”
While Bettman didn’t address Ovechkin directly in his recent remarks, there’s no question he doesn’t want any NHL players skating in Pyeongchang.
“We have an expectation that none of our players are going, but I don’t want to get into the gymnastics involved and what that means,” said Bettman. “There’s no reason to pick that fight right now.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly followed up:
“I think there’ll be a league-wide policy that will ensure that all of our players will be playing in the National Hockey League next year.”
No word yet as to the details of this policy. However, it likely means anyone under an NHL contract next season will be prohibited from Olympic participation.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis supports Ovechkin’s desire to take part in the ’18 Winter Games. But if the league takes a hard-line approach on the matter, the Caps owner will be expected to toe the line.
Bettman’s comments suggests a looming showdown between Ovechkin and the NHL over Olympic participation. However, this didn’t garner much mention from the hockey punditry. Much of their focus was on Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan’s recent remarks suggesting the remote possibility of Ovechkin someday getting traded.
It’s the Olympics, not Ovechkin’s possible trade status, that could cast uncertainty over his immediate future.
If the league bans all its players under contract for 2017-18 from skating in Pyeongchang, the 2016-17 season could be Ovechkin’s last with the Capitals. He could follow the lead of countryman and former New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk and announce his NHL retirement.
Kovalchuk was three years into a 15-year, $100-million contract with the Devils when he retired from the league on July 11, 2013, citing a desire to return home to Russia. But Kovalchuk didn’t retire as a player, spending the next four seasons skating with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
If Ovechkin takes that route, it could sever his contractual obligation to the NHL for next season. He could then sign up with a KHL franchise, providing that struggling league with a popular homegrown superstar. Provided Ovechkin has the approval of the IIHF and Russian Ice Hockey Federation, he could represent his country in the 2018 Winter Olympics,
The NHL could attempt to put language into its Olympic ban forbidding players from following the Kovalchuk example. Such a move, however, could prove difficult to enforce from a legal standpoint.
An Olympic ban that leads to Ovechkin’s NHL departure would be a significant blow for the Capitals. The greatest player in franchise history, who helped elevate their profile and popularity over the last decade, would suddenly be gone at a time when they still harbor Stanley Cup aspirations.
The NHL would also be depriving itself of one of its most recognizable stars, preventing its fans of the opportunity to follow one of the greatest goal scorers in league history.
Granted, it hasn’t reached that stage yet, but it certainly seems like the beginning of what could be an ugly showdown with a potentially unhappy ending.