TORONTO — Erik Karlsson called it “crap.” Alex Ovechkin threatened outright disobedience. Others said the NHL was crushing dreams and wondered if the fight was really over.
Reaction was mostly fiery to the NHL’s decision not to halt the 2017-18 season for players to attend the 2018 Olympics. Ovechkin responded as one might expect, reiterating his long-held stance that he’ll attend the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, whether the NHL decides to go or not.
“I didn’t change my mind and I won’t,” said Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals captain who’s still chasing a first Olympic medal. ”It’s the biggest opportunity in your life to play in the Olympic Games. Somebody going to tell me I don’t go, I don’t care, I just go.”
Whether it actually gets to that point remains a matter of some uncertainty despite the NHL’s contention Monday that it considers the matter “officially closed.” Ovechkin and other prominent players like Montreal goaltender Carey Price wondered if the league was simply bluffing, hoping to coax a better deal for Olympic participation.
Most were just aghast at the NHL’s decision.
“They crushed a dream,” Anton Stralman, the Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman, told reporters in Boston.
“It is crap. That’s pretty much what I think,” said Karlsson, the Ottawa Senators captain and a silver medallist for Sweden in 2014. ”It’s going to do more damage to this sport than people realize, and whoever made that decision obviously doesn’t know what they are doing.”
Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Justin Faulk said he didn’t even read the NHL’s official statement on the matter “because I don’t believe half of their reasoning”.
The NHL ownership class ultimately made the decision. The group has been increasingly resistant to players attending a sixth consecutive Olympics, unconvinced of the big-picture impact of a Games in South Korea and unwilling to disrupt their season for it.
But if the league holds true to that stance, would Ovechkin be alone in jumping ship from the Capitals to represent Russia? How many players, whether from Canada, Russia, the United States, Sweden, or Finland, would actually leave their NHL squads in the midst of a playoff chase for three weeks?
“I know some guys have been vocal about going regardless but I’m not sure if I’m thinking quite that far ahead yet,” said Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, the captain of two Canadian Olympic champions.
“If Russia need us of course,” 24-year-old Washington centre Evgeny Kuznetsov said, before putting a hand to his chest. “It’s in the heart always for Russian people. But we will see. Maybe they will let us go.”
Ovechkin has the support of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, but it’s possible that the NHL comes up a rule to prevent players from leaving — one the NHLPA would likely fight. What would that rule look like and how would teammates react if the likes of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov bolted is another matter.
Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director, suggested in a recent interview that it was “very probably an individual club decision” on whether players could go, a stance the NHL will surely dispute at some point soon. Fehr said Tuesday that it was “way, way, way premature” for such talk, adding that players would be well represented if it came to that.
One team, the Montreal Canadiens, said it hadn’t considered how it might react just yet.
Price expressed disappointment that perhaps the brightest set of young stars the league has seen would be denied a chance to experience the Olympics. As it stands, Hart Trophy favourite Connor McDavid won’t get to represent Team Canada; Auston Matthews won’t be able to stand for the star-spangled banner; Patrik Laine won’t have a chance to dazzle with the Finns.
Fehr said he’d spoken to McDavid about the Olympics some time ago, echoing the message he’d heard from the Oilers captain: “‘Is this potentially my only opportunity to play (at the Olympics) and am I going to be deprived from the honour of representing my country in this kind of an event?’ That means a lot to this guy and he’s emblematic, I think, of most of us.”
“I loved going,” said Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk, a force for the Americans in 2014. ”It’s definitely something that’s disappointing that our guys won’t get a chance to do that going forward now.”
Mike Babcock guided Canada to its last two Olympic gold medals and has been an outspoken proponent for the NHL attending again.
“I’ve been twice,” the Leafs head coach said. ”Greatest event you’ll ever go to in your life.”
For many it was the patriotic opportunity on the grandest international stage that was too alluring to pass up. Others like Nicklas Backstrom, who was forced to sit out Sweden’s appearance in the gold-medal game in 2014 because of a suspension, savoured the unique chance to mingle with greats from other sports in the Olympic village.
Backstrom was among the many NHL players to ride around the grounds in Sochi, Russia on a bicycle, popping in to watch other events like curling and speedskating.
Beyond that, players have described the Olympic opportunity as one that, without question, would help the game grow globally. While the 2022 Beijing Games are seen as more appealing in that sense, it’s worth remembering South Korea has a population of more than 50 million and is just one hour ahead of China’s capital.
The NHL, which recently announced pre-season games in China next season, was recently informed by the IOC that if failed to participate in 2018 then 2022 was off the table. It remains difficult to see the league ultimately spurning that opportunity, though what changes the equation is still a mystery.
Jonathan Toews wondered if it was all tied to future collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
“For some reason for me I feel like it’s going to happen,” American winger and Sochi shootout star T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s going to come down to the very last minute for me to when I really believe we’re not going to go. It would really be very unfortunate if we weren’t able to go over there.”