NHLers in Sochi: can hockey continue to serve two masters?

Puck Daddy

I have a theory: Russia has hired an injury witch.

How else to explain a strange Wednesday that saw Canada announcing a replacement for an unready Steven Stamkos, Sweden losing Henrik Sedin, Slovakia losing Marian Gaborik, and the general manager of Team USA suffering a fractured eye socket after an errant pass found its way into a hallway?

Meanwhile, Team Russia escaped the dangerous day completely unscathed. It's all very concerning, especially if you allow for the possibility that they contracted a dark and sinister sorceress to curse the competition, and her magic took root on Wednesday.

(You scoff, but I'd sooner believe that than believe their deputy PM's claim that they caught Western media sabotaging the showers on their bathroom spy cameras. We're supposed to believe they can install high-tech gadgetry in the loo when they can't install a toilet that can handle toilet paper?)

Granted, Wednesday was equally concerning even if you toss the witch theory. Watching superstars like Henrik Sedin and Steven Stamkos finally give in to their bodies at the eleventh hour, arguably well after they should have, it was hard not to miss the massive conflict of interest the Olympics create.

When the Lightning announced that Stamkos wouldn't be going to Russia, I couldn't help but notice Steve Yzerman making sure to note that the decision, made by the team doctors, was in no way contentious.

"It was a pretty clear cut decision," he said, "no gray areas at all."

It seemed unwise to draw attention to gray areas, since Yzerman's been operating in one since Stamkos snapped his leg back in November, or heck, ever since Yzerman wound up the GM of two teams that planned to use the same player.

It put him at war with himself. As the Sochi deadline grew closer and closer, and Stamkos kept pushing his rehab, trying to be ready in time, and it became clear that Tampa Bay and Team Canada probably didn't agree about how Stamkos should spend the next few weeks, one had to wonder if Yzerman was going to start having arguments with himself while flipping a two-headed coin, like Harvey Dent.

Thing is, having Stamkos stay home, take his time with his recovery, and prepare himself mentally for the back half of the NHL season is far, far better for the Lightning. It's just worse for Team Canada, since now they have to be without Steven Stamkos (although they were able to right a wrong in inviting Martin St. Louis in his stead).

Similarly, Henrik Sedin's decision to finally listen to his body's desperate need for actual rest and recovery time benefits the Canucks massively, especially considering their recent struggles and their tenuous hold on a playoff spot.

Coach John Tortorella made no bones about what he wanted out of Henrik.

"I'll tell you right now. Do I want him to go? Absolutely not," he told reporters Thursday. "I'm thinking about our hockey club. But I am not having a conversation with him about that. That is his call. That's your country. He's going to have to work that out with his family and let us know what he wants to do."

Fortunately, Henrik eventually saw things Tortorella's way. The Canucks will be better for it.

Sweden, however, will not. The loss of Henrik basically dissolves their entire second line, since you can no longer ice a trio of the Sedins and whomever. That's a huge hit for a team with an outside shot at gold.

"For me, I just felt that to go over there and not be 100 per cent is wrong towards myself, and my teammates here, and my Swedish teammates," Henrik explained. But that was a rationalization. He could have decided to join Sweden partway through, for instance. He even admitted there was a chance he could feel better a bit later. But there was a danger in that too.

"Could I be worse coming back afterwards?" He asked. "Yes, maybe. It wasn't a risk I was willing to take."

In other words, Henrik chose the Canucks over Sweden. Vancouver fans will be happy. But should he have even been in a place to make this decision? I'm not so sure.

There's no doubting that the Olympics are awesome, a great deal of fun, and some of the best hockey you'll see. I can't wait. But as excellent as they are, they also create a situation where players have to serve two masters. And as some of hockey's marquee stars hop a plane this weekend and risk a season-ending injury in games that have nothing to do with the season, as they leave it all on the ice and then hope to gather it back up so they can leave it all on a different sheet of ice later, one wonders if this is really a trip the NHL should be making.

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