Alex Ovechkin isn’t budging. Jonathan Toews is preparing for a possible showdown with owners. Justin Faulk is just plain angry that the NHL pulled the plug on the Olympics.
A day after the NHL said that it will not participate in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, disappointed players hit the ice Tuesday and tried to understand how something they have treasured for the past 20 years could be taken away so easily.
The NHL insisted the matter is closed, but a host of questions remain, from how national teams will fill their rosters to how the league will deal with players who plan to go anyway.
“Somebody going to tell me, like, don’t go, I don’t care — I just go,” the Washington Capitals superstar said.
Faulk, a Carolina Hurricanes defenseman who played for the United States in Sochi in 2014, called the NHL decision “brutal” and said he didn’t read the full explanation because “I don’t believe half of their reasoning.”
“I don’t think there’s any reason that we shouldn’t be going,” he said. “That’s pretty much the thoughts on it from every player in the league.”
Some players don’t believe it’s even the final answer.
In reiterating his intention to represent Russia next February, Ovechkin called the league’s decision a “bluff.”
Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, who won gold with Canada in Sochi, suggested it could simply be “posturing.”
Asked if he thought the matter was over, NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said: “I hope it’s not over. You don’t ever give up. You hope you can come back to it. But that’s not a decision which rests with us.”
Toews and others were fed up the Olympics was even a matter of dispute.
“It automatically turns into a negotiation,” said Toews, two-time gold-medal winner and captain of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“Just seems like it comes down to what can they get out of us when the next collective bargaining agreement negotiation rolls around? It’s not about the long-term goals of our game and growing it and the bigger picture.”
Asked about a lockout, Toews answered that he “wouldn’t be surprised … we’re already hitting some road bumps with something like this, that we’re headed in the same direction.”
Most players know nothing of the days when the NHL wasn’t part of the Games, so the news that they won’t get that chance in Pyeongchang didn’t sit well.
“Growing up, watching Sweden in the Olympics and the men’s hockey, our whole high school stood still,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “Olympics, that’s what a lot of kids dream about.
Fellow Swede Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators called it a “terrible decision” that he hopes changes.
Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby echoed Mike Babcock, his coach for consecutive Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, by calling it disappointing.
“When you begin negotiations and things like that, I really thought something was going to be able to get worked out and unfortunately that’s not the case,” Crosby said. “From what I heard it was kind of typical negotiations, then it kind of came out of nowhere with the announcement.”
Crosby said there’s “always that possibility” that the door remains open for a deal to get worked out.
Statements by the NHLPA and the International Olympic Committee made no references to negotiations, however, and the NHL said previous talks had gone nowhere on issues believed to include better marketing tied to the Olympics — something the IOC allows only for top top-tier sponsors.
International Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Horst Lichtner told The Associated Press on Tuesday they were “continuing to try to find solutions” but acknowledged a “game-changer” offer was likely needed for NHL team owners to change their minds about taking the best players in the world out of the Olympics for the first time since 1994.
The quality of competition certainly will suffer next winter, but just what NHL players can do about it isn’t clear.
Hockey Canada and USA Hockey get millions each year from the NHL, making it difficult to imagine many North American players under contract in the league would be allowed on those rosters.
There’s nothing in the NHL labor agreement guaranteeing Olympic participation, though that could change if owners or players opt out at their next opportunity in September 2019.
“There’s the question of whether this puts a dent or a further dent in the relationship that might cause the players to choose to opt out or might make the negotiations more contentious whenever they occur,” Tulane sports law program director Gabe Feldman said. “It’s a relationship-strain issue, and the possibility that this causes a lack of trust from the players.”
For now, there is also nothing in the CBA barring players from leaving their teams — potentially on unpaid suspensions — to go so Ovechkin isn’t changing his mind.
“It’s my country,” Ovechkin said. “I think everybody wants to play there. It’s the biggest opportunity in your life to play in the Olympic Games.”
The NHL hasn’t yet decided whether to allow individual teams to let players go on a case-by-case basis. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in February he expects to be punished if he allows Ovechkin and other players go but would be fine with that. Crosby said he hasn’t yet thought about whether he’d go to the Olympics anyway.
NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid of Edmonton was still digesting the news that he might reach the prime of his career without playing in the Olympics.
“It’s disappointing for all the young guys in the league,” McDavid said. “Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Aaron Ekblad, the list goes on and on. All these young guys that are trying to make their mark on hockey, and they may not be able to get their chance to on the international stage.”
The Oilers captain would be a key member of a Canadian team in Pyeongchang. Instead, McDavid could be at the start of the international path followed by another Oilers captain whose career already bears several happier parallels to his own: Wayne Gretzky played internationally only eight times, appearing in four Canada Cups and one World Cup.
Gretzky made his only Olympic appearance, as a 37-year-old at Nagano in 1998, the first year after NHL players were allowed to join. He didn’t score a goal in six games during Canada’s medal-less trip to Japan, and his playing career was over 14 months later.
Asked if he would consider playing in the Olympics without the NHL’s consent, McDavid didn’t say he would, but he also didn’t immediately dismiss it.
American winger Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild predicted a lot of controversy if players go to South Korea against the NHL’s wishes and possibly those of their owners. Czech winger Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers called it a no-win situation because players will either be abandoning their NHL teams or unable to help their national teams.
Like Toews, Faulk was frustrated that labor talks were intertwined with Olympic participation. The NHL last year offered the NHLPA a deal allowing Olympic participation in exchange for a three-year extension of the CBA, but the players turned that down.
“That was ridiculous,” Faulk said. “If we would’ve done that I’m sure they still would’ve tried getting some more out of it.”