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.
“It only happens once in four years, especially like if I have opportunity to represent my country, my hometown at home, of course it’s pretty big,” Ovechkin said. “I think for all European guys, it’s very important to be there. This event is unbelievable.”
Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, who played for Sweden in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, isn’t going that far. He’s waiting to see what happens.
“If everybody goes, everybody goes,” Backstrom said. “If they say no, I mean, it’s for everybody, I guess. It’s got to be the same for everybody, I think. Either everybody goes or no one goes.”
That’s what the league, NHL Players’ Association, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee are meeting about. NBC signing on to televise the Sochi Games makes NHL participation just about a foregone conclusion, even after IIHF president Rene Fasel told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that one roadblock is “ego from some people in North America.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he had no level of expectation for the meetings or any timeline to come to an agreement.
“The reason we are meeting is to see if we can reach a common understanding on the conditions pursuant to which the NHL and our players can fully participate in the 2014 Sochi Games,” Daly wrote in an email. “The topics we will be discussing are the same basic issues we have raised and discussed with the IOC and IIHF previously, and this is just a continuation of that discussion.”
The NHL would love more say in how the tournament works if it is taking an extended break from the 2013-14 season and letting its most valuable assets play in the Olympics. There are other issues that will need to be ironed out, but those shouldn’t stand in the way of NHL players going to Sochi.
“I think you should be able to, no question. I don’t think anyone should be able to take that right away from you,” Stamkos said. “Representing your country, it’s kind of above everything else, as well. I personally think guys will be able to go over there and represent their countries and play. I know some guys would probably go over there anyways, even if they couldn’t. I really don’t think it’ll be an issue heading forward.”