Olympic ice isn't that nice to NHL owners

Nov 2 2009 - 10:01pm

WASHINGTON -- Compared to Washington's other professional franchises, the Capitals are one happy family. They aren't facing the extreme dysfunction that surrounds the Redskins or the spate of early-season injuries that plague the Wizards -- assuming, of course, that all is well with Alex Ovechkin. Ice, apparently, is nice. So, of course, is winning.

All the happy, however, may not last. In February, the NHL will break for two weeks to allow its top players to participate in the Olympic tournament in Vancouver. It will be the fourth Games in which NHL players will participate -- and perhaps the last.

The league is considering whether to allow its players to participate after 2010. Players are adamant about their desire to play. Owners are not happy about the sacrifice of profit and the risk to their players. Some poor King Solomon is going to have the split this baby, and no matter how you slice it, it's not going to be pretty.

The issue has been percolating for a while. It came up at the Olympic Media Summit in Chicago in September, when Team USA officials -- among them Coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke -- met with reporters.

"I think this is going to be the greatest hockey tournament in the history of the world, and that's not hyperbole," said Dave Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey. "The reason is this: three gold medal games with the NHL players, six different nations in the final. You want to talk about competitive ... "

Add to that the fact that the host country is pretty crazy about the game, and the Vancouver tournament probably will live up to Ogrean's billing. Will it also be the last to feature the best players from the NHL?

"I know the owners have a lot of appetite to stop doing this," Burke said. "We've done it three times; the only time we got any kind of bang out of it was in Salt Lake (2002). Nagano, Torino, we didn't get anything out of that. So there's a lot of sentiment that this should be the last Olympics that the players play.

"On the flip side of that, the NHL Players Association has made it clear it's very important to them. And I don't think we can cherry-pick when we go. We can't tell the IOC, 'We're going to go when it's in North America and we're not going to go when it's not.' That's not going to fly. So somehow it's got to be worked out."

Somehow. That's the problem. Caps owner Ted Leonsis began laying out the NHL's position with precision before I'd even finished asking the question. Shutting down operations for 14 days is costly. To make up for that time off, the league started earlier than usual this season, and during some weeks, teams play four games instead of the more typical three. Local TV rights holders lose programming -- and of course they have no access to Olympic programming to make up for it.

"Somebody is making a lot of money around the Olympics," Leonsis said. "It's not the NHL, not the players. Just something that doesn't sit right there. The league is tremendously inconvenienced."

The NHL doesn't have the deep pockets of, say, the NBA and NFL -- or the IOC. The financial reward of the "greatest hockey tournament in the world" all goes to the Olympics. The financial risk is all borne by the league. If Ovechkin breaks a leg in Vancouver, it might cost Team Russia the gold medal -- but it could kill the Capitals' chances of making a deep run in the playoffs. Team Russia, remember, isn't paying Ovechkin's salary; the Caps are. The only entity to come out unscathed would be, as is often the case, the Olympic movement.

Leonsis also faces a somewhat unique challenge in that two of his best players -- Ovechkin and Alexander Semin -- want particularly to play in 2014, when the Games will be in Socchi in their native Russia.

"We have great Russian players, and we want to be supportive of them," Leonsis said.

At a recent morning skate at Kettler, Ovechkin reiterated his position: The NHL's top players should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Ovechkin also has personal motivation -- his mother won two Olympic gold medals in basketball.

"I don't think it's going to hurt the relationship with Ted," he said. "Everybody wants to play, the Olympics is the biggest tournament in hockey, I think. The Olympics, it's only one year, you have only maybe one chance to play in the Olympic Games."

But he added, "If somebody says you can't play in the Olympic Games, it's going to be no good."

In all, the Caps could send seven players to Vancouver. Goalie Semyon Varlamov is one of four goalies vying for three spots on Russia's team. Milan Jurcina will play for Slovakia. Tomas Fleischmann could get a spot on the Czech Republic team. The other Cap who's a shoo-in to make his country's team is Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom. Like Ovechkin, Backstrom thinks the game's best players should be in the Olympics. Like Ovechkin, he's hoping the players' union and the league can work out a compromise because "it's something I've been dreaming of all my life."

That's the problem Leonsis faces: He doesn't want to deny his best players something they want so badly. That attitude is one reason that his players like him so much.

"Young players are honored to represent their country," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As an owner, you love your players and want them to be happy. Supporting them is what we do."

So what's the answer? On the one hand, you've got the dreams of a lifetime; on the other, you've got legitimate financial concerns for a league that's not exactly minting money.

Maybe Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau has an answer.

"I haven't gone through it," he said of the February break. "All I can say is when you watch the Olympics, especially hockey in the Olympics, and you have the best players from all over the world playing, to a hockey guy, it's the most exciting thing in the world. I don't know how it is logistically, unions, any of that stuff. Don't have a clue. I think from a fan's standpoint, boy, is it exciting to watch."

Well, heck. He's right, if not helpful. So how about instead of splitting the baby, we delay its delivery a few months. Why not move the Olympic hockey tournament to the Summer Games? It's no stranger than having the Olympic basketball tournament in the summer. If the Olympics really is a player's lifetime dream, then the player shouldn't mind giving up part of his summer every four years; the NBA players do. And if a player gets hurt, it impacts the start of the season, not the playoffs. It would be a little strange to ask a summer host such as Rio to build a couple of hockey rinks, but if the IOC wants hockey as part of its program, let it write a check.

"I would love it if they do what basketball did and make it a summer game, that would be perfect," said Burke, who then added: "It's never going to happen."

Ah, well. Back to the drawing board.

 

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