PITTSBURGH – There’s been an undercurrent of hope, perhaps delusional, that the NHL would reconsider its decision not to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. That there was still time for a “game-changer” in negotiations. Heck, they hadn’t announced where the All-Star Game is next season, right? Maybe there’s still time, right?
Time ran out on Monday, officially.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the 2018 NHL All-Star Game will be in Tampa, and drove a final nail in the Olympic participation coffin. And even then, he was asked (again) if there was a still a chance that the NHL goes to the Olympics next year, because the heart wants what the heart wants.
“Six weeks ago, we were very clear and definitive that the teams were not interested in going to the Olympics in Pyeongchang,” said Bettman.
“I know that there have been a variety of comments from Rene Fasel of the International Ice Hockey Federation and representatives from the NHL Players Association suggesting that this is still an open issue. It is not, and has not been.”
So the NHL isn’t going to the Olympics. The problem is, some of its players still believe they themselves are going to the Olympics. Most prominently: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals superstar, who has steadfastly said he intends to represent Russia in 2018.
His owner, Ted Leonsis, has backed up his star: “He knows I have his back on this one. If this is what’s so important to him and he wants to go to the Olympics, he should be able to do that,” he said.
That established, and with the NHL firmly committed to skipping the 2018 Olympics, what comes next?
Bettman punted on any detailing any discipline that could befall the Ovechkin or the Capitals if he leaves for the Olympics. “We have an expectation that none of our players are going, but I don’t want get into the gymnastics involved in what that means. There’s no reason to pick that fight right now,” he said.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that the NHL will meet with the NHLPA to figure out some policy that restricts players from leaving for the Olympics if they have a standard player contract.
“There will be a League-wide policy on Olympic participation. There will be a League-wide policy that will ensure that all our players will be playing in the National Hockey League next season,” he said. “I think it’s pretty black and white. I think it involves sitting down over the summer and talking about it in an environment that’s after the season.”
Who might be able to play for Team Canada or Team USA in the Olympics? “If a player doesn’t have any contractual obligations to an NHL team, then he’s free to play for his Olympic team. But if he does, then he has obligations under his contract,” said Daly.
Daly said players that have been drafted by NHL teams but aren’t under NHL contracts would be free to participate in the Olympics. “I don’t anticipate any restrictions on those players, subject to the restrictions from their own leagues,” he said.
(This, by the way, could be one of the greatest benefits to the NHL staying home: The intense, star-making spotlight on younger players at the Olympics, before they enter the NHL as professionals.)
Daly said there hasn’t been a determination about players in the minor leagues that have NHL contracts, and what their Olympic participation status is.
With Ovechkin and Leonsis having dug their heels in on this, why not leave it up to the teams, regarding players leaving for the Olympics? If the Capitals want to play three weeks of the regular season without Ovechkin, and risk him injuring himself in an exhibition tournament, why not allow it?
“I think there are League interests involved,” said Daly. “All the other teams. That’s what a League’s about. The competition of a regular season schedule.”
In the end, perhaps what teams like the Capitals need is for the NHL to step up and take the fall here, creating a policy that restricts players from bolting for the Olympics that leaves owners’ hands tied, so they’re not the bad guys in the eyes of their disappointed star players.
Or, in summary: So Ted Leonsis isn’t the one who has to tell Alex Ovechkin “no.”
Is that, ultimately, what this is about?
“I think it’s premature to talk about it,” said Daly.
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