"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 NHL and the Washington Capitals are certainly going to be in a dicey situation should the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi not feature League players. Alexander Ovechkin's(notes) comments to ESPN.com on Wednesday (hours before he took a Zamboni for a spin in New York City) could be the start of another Russian revolution, and one that could be a PR disaster for the League in four years time.
As Fanhouse's Bruce Ciskie brought up, should the scenario play out that the NHL is no longer involved in Olympic play, yet Ovechkin (and possibly other Russian NHL'ers) go AWOL, what do the Capitals and the NHL do in that situation? Does Washington owner Ted Leonsis let his $124 million investment risk serious injury wearing the red of the Russian National Team and not the Capitals?
How do Gary Bettman and the NHL marketing staff spin one of the League's star players becoming a rebel with a cause and defying orders to represent his country? And what if he's not alone?
Could the star power and influence of Ovechkin (and possibly others) be enough to sway the NHL into sending its players to Russia in 2014? Or will the prevailing wisdom of the NHL, indirectly endorsed by the NBA's Mark Cuban of all people, win out?
Ovechkin defiantly said he didn't care if he were to be suspended for participating in the Games in his home country, and more than likely fellow countrymen Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) of the Atlanta Thrashers and the 2009 Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins would join him.
The NHL Players Association -- when they're not busy going through executive directors like Elisha Cuthbert does hockey players -- is on record as being strongly supportive of participating in the Olympic games. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the League's owners are wary of shutting the season down every four years for two and a half weeks, as well as risking injury for some very pricey investments.
Ovechkin's comments aren't easily reversible. Saying a joke or comment that's misunderstood can be fixed with a clichéd "taken out of context" quote or a simple apology -- ask Mark Whicker -- but there's no way Ovechkin can go back on his desire to play for his country in the Olympics. There's too much passion and pride in representing your country for players that this topic will be hotly debated when the next CBA is discussed.
The Capitals aren't thinking about this potential headache at the moment even with owner Ted Leonsis' stating he's fine with NHL'ers participating, for now. Most NHL owners are likely thinking along the same lines as Dallas Maverick's owner Mark Cuban who wrote about his disagreement with Olympic participation in a blog post from 2004:
"Lets put this in basketball terms...Would you trade KG, TD, Peja, Jermaine and 10 more all stars , and pay their salaries in case they get hurt , for ..........nothing.
In exchange for providing our best players to the Olympics, the value we are supposed to receive is increased visibility and demand for the NBA, its players and merchandise. The value of which can be quantified as the total revenues received annually by each team from international TV and merchandise sales.
I wont tell you what that number is, but I can tell you it wouldnt pay the salary of a player signed for the million dollar exception this year.
So we are subsidizing the US Olympic committee by:
- Providing players that we pay for
- Reducing the amount of advertising dollars available to the NBA and our broadcast partners by allowing advertisers to use our players via Olympic broadcasts and programs
- Putting our most valuable players at risk, with the possibility of having to pay their salaries even if they are unable to perform,or to perform at the previous levels
- Potentially cheating our fans and customers who make investments in our league, teams and products, with players who are worn down or injured from their Olympic experience
- Whats even crazier is that the USA fans who buy our tickets and pay the players salary probably wont even get to see our stars in more than the Gold medal game. If that !
Where is the logic in any of this ?"
That's an owner's opinion; an owner who spends millions of dollars investing in a team to win a league championship, not an Olympic medal.
As for Bettman and the NHL, they want to use the Sochi games as leverage in their on-going battle for a new player-transfer agreement with the Russian hockey federation. On the record, Bettman has said that logistical issues with the mid-season break hinder the flow of the season and that when the Games aren't in North America things are harder, even though just one of the three Olympics that the NHL has been apart of have been in North America.
The effect of Ovechkin's comments might blow over until the Vancouver games arrive in February or until another high-profile NHL'er threatens to join the reigning two-time Hart Trophy winner in Sochi.
Currently, Bettman and the NHL might have other pressing issues to deal with -- Phoenix and the next CBA -- but the 2014 Olympic in Sochi and the NHL's participation may become a topic that will be force a reaction and solution should support be drummed up surrounding Ovechkin's threat.
- Gary Bettman