Though Pyeongchang is still nearly a year away, we’ve already had the first skirmish of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament. Canada lost.
That the NHL was eventually going to find some way to louse a good thing up was a given. Few outfits in the world so consistently overestimate their own importance.
You just knew it was going to sacrifice the invaluable prestige of the Olympics in a squabble about money. No other league takes quite as much pleasure in giving up a long-term opportunity for a little bit of cash in hand – it’s a defining characteristic of all small-time grifters.
In view of that reality, what ought to have been top of mind for the Canadian hockey establishment was how to react once it happened.
That should have been simple: “We’re still going.” It’s three words. If enough important people say it, there’s little that can be done to stop it.
Instead, with a few theatrical demurs, Canada immediately fell in line. Embarrassingly, our rivals chose the route of resistance.
Here’s Alex Ovechkin, captain of Russia, when asked if he would still be playing at the 2018 Games: “Somebody going to tell me don’t go? I don’t care. I just go.”
Here’s Sidney Crosby, his Canadian counterpart: “I haven’t even thought that far to be honest. It’s a difficult situation to be in. I know some guys have been vocal about going regardless, but I’m not sure if I’m thinking that far ahead yet.”
Watching Crosby, who’s been so stalwart for this country, slipping about in order to avoid upsetting anyone may be the most Canadian moment in recent hockey history.
He still managed to get it wrong. When they ask the captain of the Canadian hockey team if he is willing to play for Canada, there’s only one right answer: “Yes.”
The business circumstances don’t matter. The professional fallout is immaterial. Nobody cares that your contract has a specific clause about this sort of thing. This is about perception.
And the undeniable perception left this week is that Russian players will do anything to play for their country, and that Canadian players need to talk to a lawyer first.
None of this would matter much if we were talking about any other sport. But this is the game we’ve all decided helps underpin not just our national identity, but also our sense of global self-worth.
Open borders, Tim Hortons and hockey – that’s Canada at this particular moment in history. It’s “our” game. They keep telling us that in the advertisements. That widely accepted premise suggests something more than ownership. We set the standard. Everyone else follows.
Based on newly available evidence, it’s actually their game – the “they” in this case being Russia. We just happen to play it, too.
Sensing it had taken the momentum, Russia got further stuck in as the week went on. The Russian Ice Hockey Federation issued a call to all its players to return home to the KHL for Olympic preparation. In martial language – “[we] will do everything possible” – it promised to support any Russian under contract in North America who chooses to defy his employers. An entire country lined up against the NHL.
Canada? Well, Canada’s pretty disappointed. But, hey, what can you do? Rules are rules. While staring directly in an Olympic hockey black hole, our country’s sports bosses were already trying to locate trace amounts of light.
“I’m confident, even if our NHL players don’t end up participating, we have such depth of field in hockey in Canada we will put forth a very strong team to defend our gold medal,” said Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough.
I suspect that confidence is not widely shared.
But this isn’t about another prize at the Olympics. You cannot predict outcomes and you cannot win them all. There’s no shame in losing from time to time.
However, there is a considerable amount of shame in deciding it’s too logistically irritating to try.
Honestly, what can the NHL or the Pittsburgh Penguins do to Sidney Crosby if he tells them he’s going to Pyeongchang? Confiscate his passport? Handcuff him to a radiator?
They’re not going to kick out the league’s highest-profile player. There’s no conceivable fine that can dent a man on a $100-million (U.S.) deal. From an NHL marketing perspective, even suspending Crosby is picking a PR fight you can’t win – because he did it for country, and you’re doing it for money. Every day he sits out is another day for you to look more petty.
The maddening thing, from a player perspective, isn’t that the NHL didn’t consider all the political knock-on effects of their Olympic decision. It’s that it did and then decided, “the players won’t balk. They don’t have the guts”.
Sadly, despite the half-hearted threats of the NHL Players’ Association, it’s largely being proven right. Redirecting questions to your union steward is not quite the same as speaking truth to power. I feel certain Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov (“If Russia needs us, of course”) didn’t feel they had to call PA boss Donald Fehr for legal guidance before they spoke out.
Crosby is the Canadian who must match their challenge. Every veteran marquee name that joins him – Toews, Weber, Price, et al – makes it exponentially less likely that the league can do much in response.
If Canada’s best wanted to signal they’re willing to go to war on this, they’ve missed their first, best chance.
The smart time to rethink the “hear and obey” approach is now. People will forgive them their caution. This would all be forgotten in a year’s time. Even if just a few of the big names do it.
But if it gets as far as next year and Russia’s best possible team wins gold while a squad of Canadian rejects and expendables gets hammered, it’s going to radically reframe our national mythology.
We will no longer be able to tell ourselves we are a hockey-or-die country. We’re a hockey-when-it-doesn’t-bother-the-people-in-charge sort of country.
In far more important ways than can be told by any medal table, we will have surrendered our hockey primacy. From that point on, Canada’s best players may yet still win at our national game. But others lead.Report Typo/Error
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