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Duhatschek: Olympic competition is a perk for the NHL’s elite. It wasn’t always so

The care and feeding of the modern-day athlete will be on display Friday, during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games, where the NHL's gentle giant, Zdeno Chara, will be the flag-bearer when Slovakia's athletes walk into the Fisht Olympic Stadium.

For Chara to be here on time, he needed permission from his employers, the Boston Bruins, to skip the final two games of the NHL team's pre-Olympic schedule.

Without Chara, the Bruins captain and a James Norris Memorial Trophy winner, the Bruins won't be quite the same when they face the St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators, respectively. In effect, they traded short-term pain for long-term game, believing – as many teams do nowadays – that keeping top players happy trumps all.

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Teams have competed for high-end players since time immemorial in professional sport, but attitudes have changed and evolved dramatically in terms of balancing their own needs with players' happiness.

It wasn't so long ago teams would never dream of permitting a player to be on hand for the birth of a child, for example. If a club happened to be on the road and a player's wife went into labour, too bad. He'd arrive to see the bundle of joy already delivered.

Bereavement leaves were also granted grudgingly by some teams. If a player needed or wanted to be with a parent in failing health, they couldn't always get away to be by their side in the final moments of life. Only results matter.

Happily, these attitudes have changed and evolved.

Major League Baseball made bereavement leave a formalized part of its collective agreement in 2004. Paternity leave was instituted in 2011.

The NHL's arrangements are more informal, but this week, Patrick Kane was given permission to attend his grandfather's funeral in Buffalo, even though it meant missing the Chicago Blackhawks' final pre-Olympic-break game. Last October, the Washington Capitals granted Alexander Ovechkin permission to fly to Greece so he could carry the Olympic torch.

With Chara, the Bruins made an easy call. Chara tends to be hard-edged and no-nonsense when it comes to his career, but he is also fiercely proud of his Slovakian roots – and loyal to the people who supported him and saw the potential in a 6-foot-9 athlete whose skating was, in the beginning, awkward and ungainly.

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"It shows how big Zdeno is to the organization in Boston that they let him go," said Branko Radivojevic, a former NHLer who will also play for Slovakia at the Sochi Games. "I don't think a lot of teams would do it probably. But Zdeno is a leader there and the captain. When he's talking in the room, everybody's listening, even the coaches. …

"If Zdeno's skipping the games, it's gotta be something special because everybody knows, he wouldn't let his team down. It's a big thing for us – and for the country."

Chara was en route here Thursday, but didn't arrive in time for Slovakia's late afternoon practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. The rest of the NHL players participating in the Olympics are scheduled to arrive via charter flights from Newark and Atlanta once league play wraps up Saturday – and there will be a culture shock.

Players used to luxury hotels and a choice of the world's finest dining spots on the NHL circuit will arrive in an athletes village, where food is served cafeteria style and the beds are tiny and jammed into their rooms. They have a dormitory-like feel, similar to what players experienced in 1998, during the NHL's first foray into Olympic competition in Nagano.

In short, accommodations will go from five-star to one-star in a hurry – and anyone that cannot adapt, or fails to understand this is Russia, and they do things differently here – will be disappointed.

On the other hand, most NHL players who've been at Olympics before speak of the value of staying in the athletes village – and mingling with sportsmen and women from other countries, most of whom devote their lives to their sport and only drift into the spotlight every four years.

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Once upon a time, U.S. basketball's first "Dream Team" went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and skipped out on the athletes village, preferring to stay in a high-end Western-style hotel because that's what they were used to. There was a significant backlash and, frankly, those players missed out on an important part of what makes the Olympics so distinct – the global village that springs up whenever athletes from around the world descend on one place to compete for gold, silver and bronze.

Security concerns around these Games made the possibility of shuttling back and forth between a ritzy hotel and the venues impractical anyway. Although if the players had insisted, presumably the NHL would have had enough clout to appropriate the necessary number of high-end hotel rooms.

So for a fortnight, the players will go back to their roots. It'll seem like those trips they made as midgets and bantams on the local travel team – three or four to a room, sleep limited, camaraderie everywhere. If they embrace it, it could be a life-changing experience.

In 1987, travelling with the Canadian national team for an event in Moscow called the Izvestia tournament, during the darkest days of Soviet Russia, where you couldn't even find a restaurant, let alone get a decent restaurant meal, centre Marc Habscheid made a fabulous point: These sorts of experiences were good for professional athletes because once they went back to their regular lives, maybe it wouldn't be such a tragedy if their restaurant steak came out medium instead of medium-rare.

That's the challenge they'll face here, too. It isn't going to meet the standards they're used to – and that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More


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