Some of the best hockey players in the world won’t be there, at least those of the male variety.
The best women will, though that hardly serves as consolation for both NBC and organizers of the upcoming Olympics in South Korea.
There’s finally some clarity to the Olympic hockey competition, after weeks of anxious negotiations on the part of the women and apparently no negotiations for the superstar NHL players who are now facing the very real possibility they won’t be wearing national uniforms in February.
Or maybe there isn’t, at least on the part of the men. Several players believe the NHL is bluffing about its decision not to participate, even though the league said there will be no new negotiations with Olympic officials.
“I think the situation was the same before Sochi,” Alex Ovechkin said. “They try to do some deals. … I’m pretty sure everything is going to be fine. They just want to (make) some big story about it.”
The big story as it stands is that the NHL will not shut down for three weeks as it has done in recent Olympics so players can skate for their countries. The reasons given weren’t exactly clear, but what is clear is that the NHL wanted more for interrupting its season than Olympic or International Ice Hockey Federation officials were willing to give.
That sets up a potentially messy situation early next year if some players decide to risk the wrath of the league and play anyway, as Ovechkin has threatened to do.
“It’s the biggest opportunity in your life to play in the Olympic Games,” the Washington Capitals star said. “Somebody going to tell me I don’t go. I don’t care, I just go.”
As so often happens in these types of affairs, the culprits are greed and power. As so often happens in these kinds of affairs, the fans are the bigger losers.
Shortsighted, yes. But don’t put anything past a group of owners who canceled an entire season a few years back to show the players who really is in charge.
Imagine the Russian team without Ovechkin, or the Canadians without Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, whose overtime goal in 2010 in the gold medal game in Vancouver was better than anything in Olympic hockey since a motley band of American college players upset the Soviet Union team in Lake Placid in 1980.
“Growing up, watching Sweden in the Olympics and the men’s hockey, our whole high school stood still,” Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “Olympics, that’s what a lot of kids dream about.”
They also dream about making millions of dollars, something that can’t be done without the cooperation of the NHL. And there’s no reason to believe the league will allow some players to take a leave of absence to play for their flag and country at a time teams are fighting for playoff seeding.
There’s no winner here, though the real losers are the fans who love the idea of stars playing for their country as much as they love their favorite NHL team. They will be deprived of the best hockey at the Olympics, which have featured pro players since the 1998 games in Japan.
The NHL’s decision clearly angered players, who rejected an offer by the league last year to carve out space for the Olympics if players would agree to extend their collective bargaining agreement for another three years. The NHLPA said in a statement that players are “extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision.”
Barring a reversal by the NHL, though, player options are limited. Though Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he would be fine with letting Ovechkin and other players go, the league as a whole isn’t going to tolerate star players leaving during the middle of the season.
The biggest wild card might be to see how NBC reacts. The network — which has billions invested in both the Olympics and the NHL — issued a statement saying it was confident there would be enough good players for the Olympics, but took no public side in the dispute.
At least NBC will be able to showcase the best women’s hockey players, something that was in doubt before the U.S. women ended a brief holdout last week in a bid to make enough money to live on. They don’t make much more than NHL players get in meal money in the new deal, but at least they will be in uniform in Pyeongchang.
Right now that’s about the only certain thing about hockey in the Olympics.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg