Almost since the moment Canada’s gold-medal winning Olympic hockey team finished celebrating in Vancouver three years ago, speculation has run wild about whether the NHL would allow its players to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
That’s an especially sensitive issue for the league’s Russian players, who desperately want to play in their home country. The issue was not on the table during the recent collective bargaining negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. It is expected the league will eventually relent, though it has long been unhappy about stopping its season for three weeks and allowing its players to participate in a tournament that – some argue – brings little benefit and much risk to the league.
Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin has been strident in the past about participating in those Olympics no matter what the NHL says on the matter. He’s softened his tone in recent months – though he hasn’t exactly backed off those previous comments, either.
“Guys, to be honest I didn’t think about it right now. It doesn’t matter what they’re going to say to me, to be honest with you,” Ovechkin said on Wednesday after learning he would be an official torch bearer at the Sochi Games. “Of course it means a lot for everybody, for all the Russians. I’ve been in Olympics and I know exactly how it feel to play there. It’s pretty big, it’s biggest event in the world.”
If it happened that the NHL and the IIHF, the sport’s governing body, couldn’t come to an agreement to allow NHL teams to participate it could be left up to individual teams to allow their players to depart in the middle of the season. Washington owner Ted Leonsis understands the risks, but this isn’t a fight he’s willing to escalate.
“It’s a players’ league. If the union and the players demand and really want to go to the Olympics, then we should let them,” Leonsis said. “I think it’s great for the league, but the players should drive that, and they have the union to do that.”
Leonsis reiterated that the topic was never brought up during the CBA negotiations, which were finally completed earlier this month.
“If they don’t, and Alex still wants to go to the Olympics, I’m gonna be honest – I’m going to let him go,” Leonsis said. “I just think it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him to have something played in Russia, and he’s gonna be a torchbearer and it’s very important to him and his family, and you know, who am I to get in the way of him wanting to fulfill that? I know that’s a slippery slope, because if [Caps center] Nick [Backstrom] says he wants to play for Sweden, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it, but I think that I’m going to lean on the side of the players on that one.”
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