Russian Hockey Powers United In Support of Sochi Olympics
One of the hottest topics surrounding the NHL for what seems like forever has been the league’s two-week hiatus every four years, when it loans its best players and biggest contracts to the Winter Olympics. The topic has been a point of interest at this year’s World Hockey Summit in Toronto, where lines are becoming more clearly drawn between those who support professional players joining the contest and those who don’t.
The 2010 Vancouver Olympics were a boon to the health of Canadian hockey. If the country won only one medal during this year’s entire Olympic holiday, it had to be Ice Hockey. The sentiment is now being echoed by Russian players and execs, who are banking on the 2014 Sochi Olympics to showcase their players, their league and their place in the international sport.
It’s no secret that KHL President Alexander Medvedev is banking on an NHL presence in the games, as all his country’s biggest stars, names like Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk, all play in North America. Medvedev is making a strong push for the NHL to continue sending its players to the world tournament, though responses from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have thus far been lukewarm.
Bettman has called the idea of sending NHL players to a fifth-straight Winter Olympics a ‘mixed-bag,’ both in terms of internal league discussions and fan interest. (Context – Would any Pens fan want to see the US take home hockey gold if it meant Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were lost for the rest of the post-Olympic season due to injuries sustained during the games?)
Bettman and the NHL haven’t wavered one way or the other on the issue, which has to be making the Russians nervous. Much like Canada needed a win at Vancouver, Russia is banking big on Sochi to showcase its players and probably to help soothe the sting of a seven-goal exit-loss to Canada earlier this year.
KHL President Alexander Medvedev, representing Russian interests in Toronto, was quoted as saying “Even in nightmare, I cannot imagine the NHL [would hold its players out of the Olympics].”
Regardless of executive decisions, it seems unlikely that any Russians playing in the NHL will be held out of their home tournament. As early as 2009, star forward Alexander Ovechkin made his intentions known, regarding the possibility of an NHL blockade of the Sochi Games. “Nobody can say to me, ‘you can’t go play for your country in Olympic Games,’” Ovechkin said. “I don’t care. I’ll go play in the Olympic Games for my country. If somebody says to me, ‘you can’t play,’ see ya.”
The thought was echoed by other Russian players. Ilya Kovalchuk said “We’ve (Russians) declared that we are going to Sochi in any case.” Even Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, who left Russia as a near-refugee to join the NHL while still under contract in a Russian league, said he would pay any fine to play in the games.
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has gone another route, suggesting that Ice Hockey become an event in the Summer Olympics. Basketball, another Summer Olympics sport, has been able to draw on America’s considerable basketball talent every four years without interrupting the NBA season. As untimely as it would seem for a summer venue, doing so would allow NHL players to participate without affecting their regular season.
The NHL is the only of the four major US sports to loan its players to the Olympics mid-season. The NBA sends its players in the summer, during the offseason. US baseball teams were purely amateur and will remain as such if the sport even continues to be played during the Olympics. Football, of course, has little presence outside of North America.
The NHL’s history with the Olympics hasn’t always been such. Since 1998, NHLers have participated in four straight Winter Olympics. Prior to that, the US sent amateur players, such as those who beat the Russian National team in the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
It will be interesting to see what comes of the Summit meetings, and whether the KHL and Medvedev can successfully push to keep the best talents from around the world (and the NHL) competing in the games. If not, don’t be surprised to see another Russian Super Team come together, regardless of whether the NHL approves of it.
Fehr to lead the NHLPA
Former MLBPA Executive Director Don Fehr has agreed to accept the job of NHLPA executive director. The move has been put in place for months and will become official after a players rep vote.
(Information for this article gathered from ESPN and The Hockey News)