Why Alex Ovechkin may not end up at the Olympics after all

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. (Nick Wass/AP)

As far back as 2015, Alex Ovechkin hasn’t been shy to mention that his intention is to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics for Russia, whether or not the NHL is involved.

And Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been supportive of his star all along.

But now that the NHL officially is not going to participate in PyeongChang, what are the odds Ovechkin leaves the Capitals mid-season to represent his country?

Turns out, they’re maybe not so good after all.

“I don’t think he’s going to end up going,” Capitals reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan said on the Tape to Tape Podcast this week. “I’m guessing the league will make some sort of punishment that prohibits anyone from going. They haven’t really been clear on what the ramifications or the consequences are gong to be for players who try to defy that. The times that Gary Bettman has spoken about the situation, you seem pretty confident that no one’s going.

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“I’m guessing it’s going to be something where it’s not up to Ovechkin or Leonsis where the league just takes it into their own hands and says ‘if you go here are the consequences’ and they might be too large for Ovechkin to do anything about it. So my guess is he’s not going.”

Further to that notion, Russian Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak played down the idea that Ovechkin would take a leave of absence in February, a first from that side. He spoke to Russian website R-Sport, in an interview translated by Khurshudyan for the Washington Post:

“What is there for Ovechkin to do now? Nothing. Play for Washington,” Tretiak said. “He has to accept that.”

If Ovechkin did leave, it’s hard to believe he’d be the only one. If he went rogue, would that not encourage players from his own team, and then the league at large, to follow suit? What would the NHL be able to do about it?

In an article for Forbes in April, Eric Macramalla looked at some potential ramifications as written in the CBA. According to Macramalla, in regards to an owner whose conduct is “detrimental” the commissioner has power to act in the “best interest of the league.” By this rule, the owner and team could be fined up to $1 million and forfeit draft picks. Leonsis, potentially, could fall here if he allows Ovechkin to go.

Macramalla continued from the player’s side:

Article 18-A.2 of the NHL CBA also provides Bettman with broad discretionary powers, this time to discipline players “guilty of conduct…that is detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey”. If the League moved to discipline an Olympic defector, the NHLPA would likely argue the league does not have standing to punish the player since the player’s employer granted the player permission to attend. That is a good argument.

There may be instances where a player seeks to attend without Club approval. That would be a bad idea since that would constitute breach of contract and could result in a fine and/or suspension. While the concept may appear novel to some, it’s important to honor an employment agreement.

Macramalla pointed out that Ovechkin would also likely receive pressure from teammates, fans and business partners to stick around.

Bettman has been asked about the potential consequences for Olympic defectors, but didn’t offer specifics earlier this year, only saying: “We have an expectation that none of our players are going. No reason to pick that fight right now.”