TORONTO – A man who was once heavily billed as a face of the NHL is now leading the crusade against it.
Alex Ovechkin doubled down on his views about the league’s decision not to send players to the Pyeongchang Olympics, saying in no uncertain terms that he’ll be in South Korea next February no matter what kind of official rules are in place.
“It’s my country,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “I think everybody wants to play there. It’s the biggest opportunity in our life to play in Olympic Games. So I don’t know.
“Somebody going to tell me I don’t go, I don’t care, I just go.”
He occupies a unique place in this conversation because Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has granted him permission to go, and he’s already earned somewhere in the neighbourhood of $90-million during his NHL career.
There really isn’t anything that can be done to stop him.
Of course, the stakes are much different for the younger generation. Players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews can’t return to their home country and earn similar incomes in another league, if need be. They’re also much less inclined to rock the boat.
It is here where Ovechkin offered a word of hope before facing the Leafs at Air Canada Centre, saying that he believes a deal to send the players will still be completed despite the NHL declaring it was “case closed” on Monday afternoon.
“Yeah, I hope so,” he said. “Again, right now it’s still a long time to make a decision, you can say whatever. You know, the next year’s schedule is not out there yet. So if in the schedule is not going to be Olympic Games, yeah, you can see they don’t bluff.
“But, again, it’s still a long time. Still everything can change. In my mind, like I said already, I’m going – it doesn’t matter what.”
There is a heavy cultural element at play here. Prioritizing NHL competition over playing for the national team amounts to a Faustian choice in the eyes of most Russian players.
Ilya Kovalchuk and his father kept a training journal when he was a young boy that was inscribed with the words: “Our goal is the Russian national team.” He ended up abandoning a successful NHL career at age 30 to play in the domestic KHL prior to the Sochi Olympics.
There’s a reason why Ovechkin and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov jumped on a trans-Atlantic flight bound for the IIHF World Hockey Championship almost immediately after the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs last season.
“We’re always like, you know, if you don’t make the playoffs or whatever you have to go to play world championship – you always go even if you’re hurt, whatever – because it’s in the heart, you know?” said Kuznetsov. “That’s why we’re playing hockey. To play for national team.”
They are not necessarily more proud than Canadians or Americans or Swedes or Finns, but the attitude is different.
You get a strong sense of that even within the Caps dressing room, where Nicklas Backstrom said “we’ll see if we’re allowed” when asked if he might follow Ovechkin’s lead and go to the Olympics without permission from the NHL.
Braden Holtby, the 27-year-old goaltender from Lloydminster, Sask., flat out declared he’s not interested in doing that.
“I wouldn’t be able to go away from my team here,” said Holtby. “That’s just, I couldn’t do it. That’s just personal. Everyone’s priorities are kind of different, obviously (Ovechkin) plays a big role on Team Russia.”
He was thrilled to be selected for Team Canada at the World Cup in September and would savour the opportunity to go to the Olympics if it ever came along.
But it’s not a be-all and end-all for him in the same way it is for Ovechkin.
“My No. 1 goal, ever, is to win the Stanley Cup and that’s really been it,” said Holtby. “I mean you grow up and you want to win a gold medal, obviously, but the Stanley Cup’s always No. 1 and until I get that everything else comes second.”
An issue weighing on the mind of Caps winger T.J. Oshie is that he believes Team USA is capable of winning Olympic gold for the first time since 1980. The man who scored four shootout goals in a win over the host Russians three years ago – getting dubbed “T.J. Sochi” in the process – thinks the next crop of players are really missing out.
“We’ve got some good young kids that have done some pretty cool stuff when they were younger and are doing some great stuff in the NHL now,” said Oshie. “As an American, it would have been pretty fun to watch or play with those guys. But there’s not much we can do now, I guess.”
He’s just trying to stay positive and hope a solution presents itself.
“For some reason, for me, I still feel like it’s going to happen,” said Oshie. “It’s going to come down to the very last moment for me to when I really believe we’re not going to go. It would be very unfortunate if we weren’t able to go over there and play.”
In the meantime, Ovechkin is taking control of his own future.
The NHL issued a memo on Monday instructing team personnel to “please refrain … from discussing the matter with your players. The issue will be handled by the League at a later time.” But Ovechkin said he’ll speak with Leonsis after the season – assuming a deal isn’t reached beforehand.
He’s skeptical on that front.
“I think the situation was the same before Sochi,” said Ovechkin. “They try to do some deals but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be end soon. I’m pretty sure everything’s going to be fine. They just want to do some big story about it, you know, but it’s their plan. Again, for us as the players we want to go there and represent our countries.
“It’s probably the biggest thing in the world.”