NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week that no one should expect the league’s players to take part in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“There are no negotiations ongoing,” Bettman told Reuters at the Sports Business Summit in New York. “We were open to having discussions on a variety of things that might mitigate the damage to our season but had no resonance.
“As things stand now people should assume we are not going,” he said.
If we are to take the NHL commissioner at his word, the Washington Capitals will be facing one huge question next season.
Bettman’s position will create conflict throughout the league with a number of players who will want to go play for their country, even in the middle of the NHL season. But nowhere will it cause more controversy than here in Washington for Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has already gone on record saying that if Ovechkin wanted to leave the team in the middle of the season — the NHL typically goes on a 2 ½ week break for the games — and go play for Russia, he would support that.
“It’s not a tough spot for me,” Leonsis told reporters in his following the Board of Governors meeting in December 2016. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.”
Note that among those in the group who are “in it together,” the fans don’t show up anywhere.
It should be a tough spot for Leonsis, a very tough spot. But, in his typical tone-deaf manner, he doubled down on his Olympics support for Ovechkin and said he would not change his mind, even if the Capitals were in the midst of a race for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We shouldn’t be so focused on it, it’s years away,” Leonsis said.
Well, now it’s just a year away, and the NHL commissioner said no one should assume the league will allow its players to take part — which means the assumption should be they won’t.
This, of course, is likely posturing by Bettman. The NHL is reportedly asking the International Olympic Committee for compensation, in the former of player insurance and other costs, and is also looking for sponsorship rights to allow the league to market the Winter Olympics on its platform, according to Reuters. It is difficult to believe that the two won’t reach some sort of agreement for NHL participation in 2018.
But the commissioner says “people shouldn’t assume” they are going.
He’s not speaking for Ovechkin, who told reporters in September 2016 that he will play for Russia in the Olympics, no matter what the NHL or the Capitals think.
That means the debate about what matters more to Ovechkin — winning a Stanley Cup or playing for Russia — will be over. Everyone will have their answer.
Ovechkin told CNN in September that, “Anyone who plays in the NHL dreams to win the Stanley Cup,” he said, “I dreamed as well to be one of them and raise the cup in Washington and bring it home to Moscow and celebrate with my friends and my parents.”
But Ovechkin, the son of a former Soviet Olympic athlete, has another dream, too — one that he appraently thinks is worth the sacrifice of three weeks out of the Capitals’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin won’t be the only NHL player who will want to leave the season to play for his country — and then the issue comes up for those players about how that violates an NHL contract.
But Ovechkin is in a particularly tough spot. He is the highest profile Russian player, and has made it clear in the past he has a close relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. There would be tremendous political and social pressure at home for Ovechkin to represent his country next year in the Winter Olympics. I would hope that is all it would be — political and social pressure.
But, unless the Capitals somehow manage to fill the huge void this season in Ovechkin’s commitment to the Washington Capitals — a Stanley Cup — there will, and should, be significant pressure here in Washington for their star player not to take nearly three weeks off in the season to play hockey somewhere else for somebody else.
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