TORONTO — Alex Ovechkin intends to be at the 2018 Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing.
“I didn’t change my mind, and I won’t,” Ovechkin said. “It’s my country. You know, I think everybody wants to play there, and it’s the biggest opportunity in your life to play in the Olympic Games. So I don’t know. Somebody going to tell me don’t go, I don’t care. I just go.”
The NHL announced on Monday afternoon that it won’t interrupt its 2017-18 season to allow its players to participate in the PyeongChang Games next February. In light of that, the spotlight is especially bright on the Capitals. With owner Ted Leonsis’s support, Ovechkin has said previously that the league’s decision won’t keep him from representing Russia, and he maintained that stance on Tuesday.
If Ovechkin intends to miss regular-season games with Washington to play for Team Russia, will other Capitals do the same?
“I have no idea if guys will or not, that’s a personal decision, [but] I wouldn’t be able to go away from my team here,” Canadian goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I couldn’t do it. That’s just personal. But everyone’s priorities are kind of different. He plays a big role on Team Russia. But as for me, I’ve always liked the group that I’ve been with through the year. That’s my No. 1 focus.”
Said Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom: “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see if we’re allowed.”
Nine Capitals players participated in the World Cup, and goaltender Philipp Grubauer even helped Germany get into the Olympic field during an August qualifying tournament. The reaction in the locker room on Tuesday after the team’s morning skate at Air Canada Center was collective frustration. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov put his hand over his heart when explaining what representing Russia means to him.
“If Russia needs us, of course,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s in the heart always for Russian people. … I’m pretty sure for Ovi, [Dmitry Orlov] and me, we kind of always talk about that and we always, like, if you don’t make the playoffs or whatever, you have to go to play World Championships or always go even if you’re hurt. It’s in the heart. That’s why we play hockey, to play for national team.”
Said Orlov: “We’ll see how it’s going to be, the situation. Right now, for sure, we want to go. It’s hard to do. Ovi said yeah, he can go, but he’s a superstar of this league and the world. It’s easy for him to do it.”
That could make for some awkwardness in the Capitals’ locker room, if some players abandon their teammates for a month to participate in the Olympics. But defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who played for Team USA in the last Winter Olympics, said he’d be understanding.
“I’d tip my caps to those guys for doing it,” Shattenkirk said. “I think that’s something that I’m sure will cause trouble with your team, but if that’s your sentiment and that’s how you feel, then absolutely, you should honor that and be proud that you did it. I definitely wouldn’t hold anything against you.”
Players seemed to have some hopefulness that there’s still time for the league to change its stance. Ovechkin said that until next season’s schedule is released, this could all be a bluff. “I’m pretty sure everything’s going to be fine. Everybody just wants to do some big story about it, it’s their plan,” Ovechkin said.
“It just seems like they want to use it as a bargaining chip,” Shattenkirk said. “That’s wrong. That’s not what the Olympics is for. The reason we started going was so we could grow the game and show the world how great it is when you get the best players in the world playing against each other. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with the World Cup, but that’s going to take time and this is right in the prime of it. The last Olympics was fantastic, and to just dismiss it, really, without much conversation is tough.”