WASHINGTON — The NHL’s participation in the Winter Olympiad is a fight years in the making at this point, with Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin adamantly claiming he will play with or without the league’s blessing, and Caps owner Ted Leonsis backing his player.
But now, with the Olympics now just months away, rhetoric is drifting back toward reality for everyone except Ovechkin.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post translated an interview with Vladislav Tretiak, the head of the Russian Hockey Federation, from the Russian sports site R-Sport.
“What is there for Ovechkin to do now? Nothing. Play for Washington. He has to accept that.”
This is a first for anyone in Ovi’s camp, who have largely endorsed his hardline stance to play in the Winter Games. The reason why is fairly simple: the NHL has the power to punish everyone who breaks rank.
For players and teams who allows players to leave, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has the broad discretion to hand down fines and seize draft picks. There could even be a suspension for players who leave to play.
But from the Russian sports perspective, there’s something potentially more sinister: the NHL could poach talent at will from European leagues. According to Russian hockey reporter Igor Eronko, the NHL, KHL and other professional hockey leagues have an agreement to honor contracts signed by other leagues. If they step on the NHL’s toes here, the NHL can repay that and more:
So where does that leave Ovi, the face of defiance on the matter? Well, if he’s going to go into that good night, it won’t be quietly. On Thursday night, the team released a statement from the player, detailing his thoughts on the matter.
Here are some of the highlights (submitted without edits):
The Olympics are in my blood and everybody knows how much I love my country. Ever since I was a kid and all the time I have played in the NHL, NHL players have played in the Olympic Games. We never have to make choice between our team and our country my whole career. I love the Capitals and my teammates here as much as I love my country and I know all the other NHL players feel the same for their teams. We should not have to be in position to make this choice.
Ever since I was good enough to play on Men’s National Team, whenever they ask me I play. When they ask me to be part of Olympics Closing Ceremony in Vancouver before Sochi get the Olympic Games I said ok let’s do it. When they ask me to be Ambassador for Sochi Olympic Games I did it. When they ask me to go to Greece and be first Russian to carry Olympic flame on way to Sochi I do it. When they ask me to play in World Cup I do it. I am proud that we win on Junior team and for the National team in World Championships but we do not win the most important thing yet. Olympic Gold Medal.
I see the news this week and I am very disappointed that IOC, IIHF and NHL put me and all NHL players in this position when some of the best players in world do not have chance to play in the Olympic Games. This is not just about me but all the NHL players who want to play and have a chance to win Gold for their country. Our countries are now not allowed to ask us to play in the Olympics. Me, my teammates and all players who want to go all lose. So do all the fans of hockey with this decision that we are not allowed to be invited. NHL players in the Olympics is good for hockey and good for Olympics. It sucks that will we not be there to play!!
Ovechkin’s statement continues, but his last line sums it up: this sucks for players and fans of the sport.
Hockey players dream of playing in the NHL because of its storied tradition and high salaries, but the players’ hearts remain with the national teams that many became stars on. It’s unfortunate to see this come to a disappointing conclusion.