- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. — Steven Stamkos fondly remembers being 13 years old and watching Canada win the gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

“That’s something that sticks in my mind, for sure,” the Tampa Bay Lightning center said.

Alex Ovechkin remembers how much he always wanted to win a gold medal for Russia in the Olympics and world championships. Even more than capturing the Stanley Cup.

“It was very important, and all media, all [attention is on the] Olympics,” the Washington Capitals captain said. “I remember, I was little kid in my country home far from Moscow — little kids, we watched the Olympics.”

Stamkos and Ovechkin want to go to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and it’s likely that the parties involved will soon agree to let NHL players participate in the games. Most around hockey think it’s a good thing for the growth of the sport.

“It’s the biggest stage in the world for us to market our players,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “The Olympics is the one time the whole world is watching, and I believe we want our players there because we have the best players in the world. … It’s only good for our game. What harm does it cause?”

Other than interrupting the NHL season for two weeks, there’s the inherent risk of injury. Guys playing with unfamiliar teammates in unfamiliar systems can be a recipe for trouble.

“I’ll tell you what, how do you feel if one of your players goes over and gets hurt?” Caps coach Adam Oates said.

Oates chose not to represent Canada in international competition during his playing career, even though he had chances. His priority was playing for his team in the NHL.

And while Oates understands the value of Olympic participation to the promotion of hockey, he doesn’t believe NHL players belong there.

“You know what, I don’t. I don’t. My honest answer is no,” Oates said. “Is it good for hockey that they do it? Great. But I grew up trying to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, not Team Canada. Didn’t even know it existed.”

There’s likely a generational divide between Oates and young guys who grew up seeing NHL players in the Olympics. Before 1998, when NHL players went to Nagano, Japan, the Olympics were a tournament for amateurs.

Stamkos, who wasn’t directly asked about Oates’ comments, always hoped to wear the red-and-white maple leaf on his chest.

“Especially as a Canadian kid, if you don’t think about that, then something’s wrong with you,” Stamkos said. “Anytime you get the chance to represent your country, at any stage, is something you dream of as a kid, whether it was representing your province or representing Canada at the under-18s, world juniors. Obviously the Olympics is the highest level.”

Oates acknowledged that “it’s a different animal” for European players who prioritized international play. That includes Ovechkin, who has made it perfectly clear, along with other Russian players, that he’s going to Sochi with or without commissioner Gary Bettman’s blessing. And Washington owner Ted Leonsis said last month that he’ll give Ovechkin permission to leave, even without NHL approval.

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