Steve Yzerman took the job as executive director of Canada’s men’s 2014 Olympic hockey team on Monday, without knowing its exact parameters. It’s possible that Yzerman may just get a chance to reprise the 2010 Olympic experience, when the NHL suspended its schedule for a fortnight to allow all the best players in the world to participate.
Alternatively, Yzerman and his staff may be scouring the depths of the minor leagues, the European leagues and even the junior leagues if the NHL decides to skip the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which is still a possibility.
The NHL has steadfastly maintained that Olympic participation would be part of the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations and, as such, no firm decision would be made until the league and the players association hammer out a new agreement.
But in his gut, Yzerman thinks the NHL will overcome whatever logistical issues need to be addressed and show up in Sochi for 2014.
“I believe we will,” said Yzerman, Monday. “There are some challenges and issues for the league, and for the players association - and for everybody involved. Everybody involved loves [the Olympics] Going back to ’98, with the Czechs winning, with Sweden winning [in 2006] with Canada winning (in 2002 and 2010), it’s great for the game. At the end of the day, I think everyone will agree it’s good for the game and we’ll work something out.”
Joining Yzerman on the management team will be the same three NHL executives who assisted him in 2010 - general managers Ken Holland (Detroit Red Wings) and Doug Armstrong (St. Louis Blues), along with Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations.
It was just over two years ago that Canada celebrated gold in Vancouver, but even as that tournament was unfolding, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn’t commit to participating in 2014.
According to Bettman, there were too many issues with logistics, and no certainty that the Olympics helped or hindered the overall NHL business model.
Left mostly unsaid was the fact that relations between the NHL and the Continental Hockey League had been frosty over the years, primarily over player transfer issues.
As a group, NHL players tend to be universally supportive of Olympic participation and some members of the NHLPA, notably Washington Capitals’ star Alex Ovechkin, have even said they will play in a Russian Olympics regardless of the consequences - which would mean leaving their NHL teams in mid-season and facing hefty fines and/or suspensions.
That scenario might summon up memories of the old Cold War days, when Russia’s so-called “amateurs” competed against the second tier of Canadian and U.S. players, because all the best ones were playing in the NHL.
Yzerman himself would be immersed in NHL business if the league doesn’t suspend play for 15-to-18 days to accommodate Olympic participation, but predicted: “It will be worked out. Obviously, if the NHL isn’t involved, it’ll be a dramatically different tournament. You’ve got to figure out who will coach, [and]who will play. But we’ll work that out - and we’ll know soon enough, with enough time in advance to prepare and have a plan.
“But right now, there’s only Plan A.”
And Plan A involves picking the best Canadian team possible, and the hope of course is that Sidney Crosby’s health issues are behind him and that he can return as well. Crosby scored the Golden Goal for Canada in overtime against the United States to win the gold medal just a little more than two years ago.
Canada started the 2010 tournament slowly, but picked up momentum through the playoff round, with Yzerman providing a calm steadying presence on a team facing enormous home-ice pressure.
Yzerman is good friends with Wayne Gretzky, who ran the team in 2002 and 2006, one a stirring victory, the other a bitterly disappointing defeat. The safest thing for Yzerman to do would have been to rest on his laurels - and let someone else deal with the headache of Sochi, Russia, 2014. But safe generally isn’t a consideration, not for someone as competitive as Yzerman.
“For me, given the opportunity to go to Russia and compete in the Olympics again, that’s too good an opportunity to pass up,” said Yzerman. “We all want to win. We all want to do well, but that’s part of what makes sports better than anything - that the outcome is undetermined.
“These are things I really enjoy doing. You know what? We’re going to do our best. We’ll do a good job in putting together a team - and hopefully, we come out with the right result. But I don’t worry about not succeeding. I want to try it. It’s too great a challenge to pass up.”