SOCHI, Russia – The strain of a few days spent in transit were unmistakable on Zdeno Chara’s face. There had been a snow-related flight delay, a layover in London and a quick visit with his father in Slovakia before the Boston Bruins captain arrived at the Sochi Olympics to carry his country’s flag at the opening ceremony.
Yet, despite the epic journey and the jetlag and the two missed Bruins games, there was clearly nowhere on Earth he’d rather be. “It’s a huge privilege,” Chara said Friday. “I can’t really describe it until it all sinks in. Honestly, it’s a dream come true.”
In many ways, this is a dream that has been created by the NHL. As soon as the league began sending its players to the Olympic Games in Nagano 16 years ago, it opened up a world of possibilities for the men who play hockey for a living. It also helped create powerful golden moments for Czechs and Canadians and Swedes—to say nothing of the impact of near-misses on those in the U.S., Russia and Finland—and ultimately influenced the current generation of players.
Take Chara’s Bruins teammate, David Krejci, for example. He was an 11-year-old boy when Dominik Hasek backstopped the underdog Czechs to a victory in Nagano and, it was during the wild celebrations that followed in Prague that he decided that he wanted to be a pro hockey player. “They went on the stage and they were singing songs with the fans and it was live on TV,” Krejci told me recently. “That was like a moment that kind of turned it around for me in my hockey career. I was watching that, I had goosebumps and I wanted to be out there with those guys. You know?”
While we’ve known for some time that NHL owners would prefer to pull the plug on Olympic participation altogether—replacing it with a money-making World Cup that just wouldn’t touch the same nerves—there was something particularly appalling about Ed Snider’s rant to reporters in Philadelphia on Thursday night. It was almost like the Flyers chairman forgot his own role in the current situation. Not only is the 81-year-old a staunch ally of commissioner Gary Bettman, he has been a stakeholder in the league longer than any other man. He was certainly in a position of considerable power when the NHL halted its schedule in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010—a practice he now refers to as a “farce.”
In fact, Snider even took the position that he wouldn’t want his players going to the Games if they were being held in Philadelphia. Seriously. “I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off or however long it is in the middle of the season,” he said. “It screws up everything.”
Bettman recognized from the beginning that shutting down the league mid-season wasn’t ideal and originally attempted to have hockey included in the Summer Games. But former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch wouldn’t have it. Since then, other issues and tensions have arisen and there was every reason to wonder if a deal would even be reached to send players to these Games.
What makes the Olympic debate particularly interesting is the fact that it comes at a time when the NHL is looking to expand its presence internationally. A section of the new collective bargaining agreement was dedicated solely to that topic and discussions are well along the way to bring the World Cup back in September 2015. Against that backdrop, it’s hard to imagine abandoning the globe’s biggest sports spectacle, but the betting line on whether NHLers are around in Pyeonchang, South Korea four years from now should be set at well less than 50-50. It’s awfully telling that very few NHL owners plan to make the trip to Russia for these Games, even though they all have at least two employees participating.
At the very least, kudos should be given to the Bruins organization—and even hardline owner Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the NHL’s board of governors—for granting Chara’s wish to leave the team so that he could carry the Slovak flag. They would have been justified to stand in his way and have no doubt strengthened their relationship with the player by choosing not to do so. “I can’t thank them enough,” Chara said.
It certainly stands in stark contrast to the situation New York Islanders defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky currently finds himself in. Despite playing five games since returning from a concussion, the Isles are trying to bar him from coming here. Slovak GM Otto Sykora is holding out some hope they may change that stance and can’t understand why they’d keep the player from experiencing a “big emotional moment.”
Everywhere you look, the battle lines are being drawn.
The reality of the situation is that the owners and players are going to have to work through this together. One can’t unilaterally force the other to do anything. Essentially, they are a married couple with a difference of opinion and divorce isn’t an option.
However, that doesn’t mean it won’t get messy.