Well, you knew it would eventually come to this.
Some time ago, Alex Ovechkin made it known to his Washington Capitals employers that he was in line to be the first Russian torch bearer as the Olympic torch made its long circuitous journey from Olympia, Greece to Sochi, Russia – and that he would not look favorably upon the team if it prevented him from doing so. The only problem, of course, is that the torch will be lit this weekend, meaning Ovechkin will be making a trip across the Atlantic (ocean, not division) on the final weekend of the NHL exhibition season. Did the Caps want the face of their franchise starting the regular season with jetlag? No. But would the Capitals ever stop Ovechkin from going if he wanted to? No.
It is all part of the care and feeding of the NHL superstar, and the reality of today’s sports world - of needing to keep your key players happy, even if isn’t exactly the ideal way to prepare for the start of the regular season.
Ovechkin made it clear, three years ago already, that the 2014 Olympics in Sochi were near and dear to him – and an absolute priority. Nowadays, the NHL does an event prior to the start of training camps in New York, where they bring in the league’s best players to tape promo spots with sponsors, rights holders and talk to a handful of reporters about what’s coming up.
Normally, very little actual news is dispensed at these events, but Ovechkin’s promise that day – that he was prepared to breach his NHL contract, even if the league opted out of the Sochi Games – made everyone sit up and take notice. In my view, that was the moment that NHL participation was a certainty, never mind that it took another two-and-a-half years to hammer out an agreement with the International Olympic Committee.
Knowing Ovechkin’s threat was likely genuine and not empty, how could the NHL take a chance that the Caps might have to play up to three weeks of games without their premier forward for because he was in Russia? Could the NHL season merrily carry on, without undermining the integrity of the competition?
Once Ovechkin made his feelings known and put them on the record, other Russian players said pretty much the same thing – they would follow his lead if necessary because they too wanted to play in Sochi. It potentially opened up a huge can of worms for the NHL. At a time when Russia’s domestic league, the KHL, was doing everything in its power to repatriate its star players, it was a war the NHL didn’t want to fight.
And the logic of the Russian players was indisputable: They believed that if the NHL was prepared to shut down league play in 2010 so Canadian-born NHL players could compete in Vancouver, they should be extended the same courtesy four years later.
It is why I have always maintained that Sochi would happen, but participation in 2018, when the IOC takes the Winter Olympics to Korea, is in far greater peril. It is why players are even more committed to making their respective Olympic rosters this year than in the past – for some it may be their last, or only opportunity, to compete in the event. That will ultimately be up to commissioner Gary Bettman and negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation designed to put the World Cup back on the hockey-playing calendar. Resurrecting the World Cup is far preferable to the NHL because it takes place prior to the season and thus doesn’t interfere with any revenue streams.
Ideally, in a perfect world, with the NHL regular season just around the corner, Ovechkin would just be hanging around the U.S. capital this weekend, practising with the team and then be ready to board a plane for Chicago and the season opener next Tuesday.
Instead, he will get into one final exhibition game, against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night; skip the Caps' final preseason tune-up, board a plane for Greece, participate in the torch-lighting ceremony and then immediately return to Washington. He is scheduled to be back on Sunday, which will give him roughly 24 hours to reset his body clock before leaving again for Chicago. Given the choice between having a happy and tired superstar, or a rested and grumbling one, the Caps did the only thing they could do – and gave him their unreserved blessing. Knowing Ovechkin, he will likely be great in those first couple of games too – just to make the point that the trip wasn’t a distraction at all.