Washington Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin grew up dreaming of the chance to win gold medals for Russia in the Olympics. There was no event that captured the attention of his home country more than the Summer or Winter Games and no higher honor than being one of the select few chosen to represent it.
“It was very important, all media, all [attention is on the] Olympics,” said Ovechkin, whose mother won two Olympic gold medals in basketball for the Soviet Union. “I remember, I was little kid in my country home far from Moscow — little kids, we watched the Olympics. . . . Everybody is involved.”
Officials from the NHL, hockey’s international governing body and the Olympics met this past week to discuss allowing NHL players to participate in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, but no agreement has been reached. Regardless, Ovechkin has played in the past two Olympics and intends to do so again — with the support of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis — when they begin in 51 weeks.
While Ovechkin and other Russian players feel particularly passionate about the issue given the location of the event, they’re far from the only ones arguing for NHL players’ participation. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos has long waited for the day he could represent Canada in the Olympics and he doesn’t believe NHL players should be prohibited from taking part, especially since they have skated in the past four Winter Games.
“I think you should be able to, no question,” Stamkos said this past week. “I don’t think anyone should be able to take that right away from you. Representing your country, it’s above everything else. I personally think guys will be able go over there and represent their countries and play, I know some guys would probably go over there anyways even if they couldn’t.”
Two days of talks that concluded Friday were productive, according to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who along with Commissioner Gary Bettman met with International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel and representatives of the International Olympic Committee.
“We hope to be able to pursue those discussions on a more detailed level over the next several weeks to see if we can all get to a comfortable place,” Daly wrote in an e-mail, adding that there is no firm deadline for a deal to be struck. “Timing is important and we all agree that a decision on NHL participation has to be made in the relative short term.”
The NHL is seeking video, photograph and Web site rights and greater overall involvement in the tournament. In addition, there is a longstanding debate over whether the worldwide exposure given to the sport is worth the league shutting down for two weeks and the risks to the health of its elite players.
Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning and executive director of Canada’s men’s hockey team for 2014, was adamant that the Olympics offer an unparalleled venue for the NHL to grow interest in the sport.
“It’s the biggest stage in the world for us to market our players,” Yzerman said. “The Olympics is the one time the whole world is watching and I believe we want our players there because we have the best players in the world. . . . It’s only good for our game.”
Not everyone agrees. Capitals Coach Adam Oates cited injury concerns as one of the reasons why he doesn’t want NHL players to take part in the Olympics, even though he understands the promotional benefits.
“You know what, I don’t. I don’t. My honest answer is no,” Oates said of whether he wants NHL players in the Olympics. “Is it good for hockey that they do it? Great. But I grew up trying to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, not Team Canada. Didn’t even know it existed.”
As a Hall of Fame player, Oates opted never to represent Team Canada despite invitations to do so because he prioritized his NHL career above international competition. But this generation of players might view Olympic participation differently.
During the bulk of Oates’s playing career, the Olympics were an amateur tournament. The NHL has sent its players to every Winter Games since 1998 in Nagano, Japan, though, and current players came of age watching professionals not only compete for the Stanley Cup but for gold medals as well.
Stamkos recalled watching Canada win gold at Salt Lake City as a 13-year-old in 2002 and has long envisioned his opportunity to represent his homeland on the world’s grandest stage.
“As a Canadian kid, if you don’t think about that, something’s wrong with you,” said Stamkos, 23. “Any time you get a chance to represent your country at any stage is something you dream of as a kid.”