N.H.L.’s Olympics Stance Leaves Players Cold
“I’ve been twice,” Babcock said. “Greatest event you’ll ever go to in your life.”
Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals’ superstar right wing, has competed in three Olympics for Russia and intends to make it four. Despite the N.H.L.’s order, Ovechkin reiterated that he would leave Washington to play for his country next winter, and his countryman and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov echoed him on Tuesday. The team’s owner, Ted Leonsis, has so far supported Ovechkin, but it was unclear how Ovechkin, who is under contract with the Capitals until 2021, could take his leave and what punishment he might incur.
“I haven’t changed my mind, and I won’t,” said Ovechkin, who suggested he thought a deal could be reached. “I’m pretty sure everything is going to be fine. Next year’s schedule is not out there yet.”
In its statement Monday, the N.H.L. said it considered “the matter officially closed,” and Commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated on a Toronto radio show Tuesday that the league’s decision was final.
The three-week disruption to the N.H.L. schedule caused by the Olympic break annoyed owners and league officials, who cringed at the N.H.L.’s disappearance at a fertile juncture of the sporting calendar, just after the Super Bowl and before baseball season. Unable to negotiate marketing and sponsorship concessions from the International Olympic Committee, N.H.L. officials concluded there was too much to lose and not enough to financially gain. Another concern was the risk of injury.
“You have owners paying us a lot of money; they don’t want us to get hurt,” said Flyers forward Jakub Voracek, who played for the Czech Republic in 2014. “But I think at this time, you forget about that aspect for the sport.”
By that, Voracek was referring to the increased exposure and the potential for broadening the N.H.L.’s fan base. Several players said they could not square the league’s investment in China, which will host the 2022 Games and two N.H.L. exhibition games in September, with its refusal to participate in the 2018 Olympics.
“Knowing that the league wants to get into the Asian markets, it maybe would have been smart to go over there and show the best players,” said Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin, who represented Sweden in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics but was injured in 2014.
San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who played for Canada in the 2014 Olympics, also attacked what he considered hypocrisy in the league’s concerns over injuries.
“Guys get injured in the World Cup, but that’s O.K.,” he said, referring to the league-endorsed global competition revived last September in Canada. “Shorter summers, longer seasons, but that’s O.K.”
Many players, like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, have participated in the Olympics before. But the next generation of stars, like Edmonton center Connor McDavid and Toronto center Auston Matthews, will have to wait until at least 2022.
“All these young guys that are trying to make their mark on hockey, and they may not be able to get their chance to on the international stage,” McDavid said. “That part of it is a little bit upsetting.”
McDavid, a Canadian, treasures his memory of Crosby’s goal in overtime to defeat the United States for the gold medal in 2010. Minnesota forward Zach Parise, who tied the score late in regulation for the Americans that day, said he perceived the N.H.L.’s bleak portrayal of its accommodation to the Olympics as posturing, a tactic deployed in 2013 when negotiations stalled before the Sochi Games. An agreement was reached less than seven months before the opening ceremony, but the rancor seems to run deeper now.
The players’ union issued a scathing rebuke of the N.H.L. on Monday, blistering its “shortsighted” decision and “efforts to blame others.” The union could not secure Olympic participation in the 10-year collective bargaining agreement ratified in January 2013, and in December, the union rejected the league’s proposal to accommodate the Olympics in exchange for a three-year extension of the C.B.A.
Although the agreement expires on Sept. 15, 2022, labor peace can be interrupted far sooner because either side can opt out by September 2019. Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said he viewed the league’s decision as a bargaining chip to extract other concessions, but Devils goalie Cory Schneider said he hoped the players would not let the Olympics become a negotiating ploy for the C.B.A.
“I know you can have language in the C.B.A. regarding the Olympics, but ultimately, they’re pretty independent of each other,” said Schneider, who was hoping to make the 2018 United States team. “If we start giving up years or concessions for this Olympics, then every Olympics, I’m sure something will open up if they said, ‘If you want to go, we want this.’
“Who knows? Once you set a precedent, it’s pretty hard to go back on. That’s not our thinking.”
The acrimony between the sides raises the likelihood of another round of hostile labor negotiations — and of another lockout, which would be the fourth of Bettman’s tenure. But there are more urgent ramifications.
Given the stance of the players’ union, it could refuse to participate in the next World Cup of Hockey. Free agents or young prospects might prefer playing overseas next season to give themselves a chance to play in the Olympics.
“The Olympics, it’s not about money; it’s not about fame; it’s about playing for your country and trying to win a gold medal,” said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who won gold in 2006 with Sweden. “When you get a taste of it, you want to go back there again and be part of something great.”
Unless the N.H.L. softens, Lundqvist, 35, has probably played in his last Olympics.
Sedin, 36, said he did not expect many players to follow Ovechkin’s lead but joked: “I’ll go even if I don’t get picked. I want to watch curling.”
The Games will go on without Lundqvist, Sedin and so many others. They will instead feature a cast of N.C.A.A. players and minor leaguers, juniors and European professionals.
“Pretty cool for those college kids or whoever gets to go to the Olympics who might have never had that opportunity, maybe,” Faulk, of the Hurricanes, said. “From our end, we all wanted to go.”
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