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Canadian Olympians Mellisa Hollingsworth and Danielle Wotherspoon-Gregg were hanging out in the athletes village Monday when they heard the Stanley Cup would be at Canada Olympic House.
Hollingsworth, a skeleton racer, and Wotherspoon-Gregg, a long-track speedskater, figured why not go and take a picture with one of the most famous trophies in sports. Like many of the athletes who went to see the Cup, they’ll never compete for it, yet it still holds a special meaning to them.
“It is a symbolism of sport and greatness for Canada, really,” Hollingsworth said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete or what career path you’re down. This is something that symbolizes Canada and our culture.”
On Monday, while athletes from various sports were enjoying their hour with the Cup, its appearance at Canada Olympic House became a lightning rod for criticism.
“Why is the Stanley Cup at Canada House in Sochi?” former Canadian Olympic skier Brian Stemmle wrote on Twitter. “Other athletes don’t bring their trophies. Hate when hockey tries to overshadow other sports.”
The athletes at Canada Olympic House didn’t seem to see it that way as figure skater Patrick Chan, speedskater Brittany Schussler, skeleton racer Eric Neilson and some of the Canadian curlers were among those to have their picture taken with the Cup.
But Stemmle’s comments, which led to more criticism on social media, highlighted the debate over whether NHL players should be at the Olympics, and whether their presence in Sochi and at other Games takes away from athletes in other sports.
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman, who also serves as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has said on numerous occasions that he believes in NHL participation at the Olympics. When asked about a recent poll that suggested Canadians believed the country’s success or failure at the Olympics depended on the men’s hockey team, he said that was “unfair to the rest of the Canadian Olympic team.”
“I want people to understand our players are respectful of all the other athletes here and are proud to be a part of the Canadian Olympic team,” Yzerman said at a news conference last week. “For every Canadian athlete, they’ve been training their entire life for this, and I think it’s unfair to them that we detract from any of their accomplishments regardless of what happens with our hockey team.”
COC president Marcel Aubut said he asked the NHL bring the Cup to Canada Olympic House.
“The Canadian Olympic Committee made a request for the Stanley Cup, and we did the best we could to accommodate the request,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email.
Philip Pritchard, the Cup’s handler, said the NHL is “thrilled to be part of the Olympics.
“And to share the Stanley Cup with not only the athletes but the fans, the media, the volunteers, everything — it’s a win-win for all sports athletes and sports fans around the world.”
That seemed to be the reaction inside as flashbulbs went off around the Cup. Current Olympians were urged to take a team photo with it, and they did so smiling, laughing and soaking up the moment.
One of those current Olympians was men’s hockey right-winger Corey Perry, the only one in the picture who has won hockey’s Holy Grail. Perry, who was part of the 2007 Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks, just happened to be paying a visit to Canada Olympic House with his girlfriend and had no idea the trophy would be there.
Perry enjoyed seeing the reactions of fellow Olympians, who made a date to see the trophy that has include his name.
“This is what we do for a living: We play to win that Cup and lift it at the end of each season is what you want to do,” Perry said. “When you see other athletes get that excited, it’s a pretty cool experience.”
Much of the talk since NHL players arrived in Sochi has been about their experience as part of the Canadian Olympic family. They’re staying in the coastal village with roughly 85 other athletes, and although they’ve occasionally been stopped for pictures, players have sought out normal experiences like playing ping-pong and going to events like curling and speedskating.
“I didn’t know what to expect with the village and everything that went with it, but that’s what I enjoy the most,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said. “Just being part of the Olympics and the Olympic experience. Obviously, hockey’s there but if you can’t enjoy the whole experience, you’re not here for the right reasons.”
Coach and members of the management team have taken to appreciating that “Olympic experience.” But they can go through the village without the attention that many of the star players face.
“I think the other athletes get a sense that the hockey players are just like them even though they probably look at Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews and these guys and they maybe put them up on a bit of a pedestal,” said Kevin Lowe, a member of Team Canada’s management team. “But they realize that they are just Canadians and they’re just athletes and they’re respectful.
“‘Any time this question is asked, the response is we are a part of the Olympic Team Canada and we don’t feel any different. The curlers come and visit and lots of the other guys have met the other athletes and stuff. We are in awe of them.”
Hollingsworth, who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, isn’t in awe of the men’s hockey players as celebrities because she and others have met them in passing at various events.
“I have the most respect for people who have worked their entire lives to earn this jacket, and if they come into this world and they are genuine and respectful to the other athletes, then all the better,” she said.
Having the NHL at events like the Olympics seems to further that point. Canada chef de mission Steve Podborski has said that the hockey players came out of Vancouver four years ago wanting to feel more like part of a team with the rest of the athletes.
Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and IIHF president Rene Fasel are expected to address continued participation for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, at a news conference Tuesday. Daly said last week that the NHL would like to meet after leaving Sochi and have a decision within the next six months.
Yzerman made it clear on behalf of Hockey Canada and as a former player that he’s fully supportive of NHL players being at the Olympics, even given the risk of injury, the time-zone issue and the need to interrupt the regular season.
Current players said being at the Olympics was definitely worth that hassle.
“The Olympic Games is obviously a pinnacle of sports and it represents a lot,” Team Canada forward John Tavares said. “I think it’s important we continue to try and find a way to (make it) work. We certainly enjoy coming as players.”