- - Thursday, June 14, 2018

We have seen a lot of the happy Alex Ovechkin this week — the smiling, laughing, celebrating Alex Ovechkin, the Stanley Cup champion Alex Ovechkin.

But that’s not how the season started. We saw and heard from the angry Alex Ovechkin, the frustrated Alex Ovechkin, the sad Alex Ovechkin, when he issued this statement in late September:

“I wanted to make this statement so that my words are clear and nobody misunderstands what I am saying. The Olympics are in my blood and everybody knows how much I love my country. Ever since I was a kid and all the time I have played in the NHL, NHL players have played in the Olympic Games. We never have to make choice between our team and our country my whole career. I love the Capitals and my teammates here as much as I love my country and I know all the other NHL players feel the same for their teams. We should not have to be in position to make this choice.

“I see the news this week and I am very disappointed that IOC, IIHF and NHL put me and all NHL players in this position when some of the best players in world do not have chance to play in the Olympic Games. This is not just about me but all the NHL players who want to play and have a chance to win gold for their country. Our countries are now not allowed to ask us to play in the Olympics. Me, my teammates and all players who want to go all lose. So do all the fans of hockey with this decision that we are not allowed to be invited. NHL players in the Olympics is good for hockey and good for Olympics. It sucks that will we not be there to play!!

“I said every time I was asked since last Olympics that nobody is going to tell me I can’t play because my country was going to be allowed to ask me. Now the IIHF and NHL say my country is not allowed to ask anybody in the NHL to play and there is nothing to talk about anymore.”

Oh, yes, the Olympics. Remember that? You should. In fact, if you are a Washington Capitals fans, you should cheer NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, instead of the typical practice of booing him, because his decision to not have the league participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea may have saved your team the Stanley Cup.

AUDIO: Sportscaster Lesley Visser with Thom Loverro

We will never know, of course, for sure how taking three weeks off in February might have affected the Capitals’ season and preparation for the postseason. But if we look upon past performance – well, it certainly didn’t help.

The last time NHL players participated in the Olympics was in 2014 in Sochi, Russia. It was also the last time the Capitals failed to make the playoffs, with a 38-30-14 record, after making the postseason for six consecutive years. That likely had to do Adam Oates as their head coach as anything, but the fact is that Washington’s lone season failing to make the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2008 came during an Olympics year.

Before that, it was 2010 in Vancouver, and the Olympic break didn’t seem to affect the Capitals, who were on their way to a 54-15-13 record and the President’s Trophy for the best regular season. But, in case you forgot, 2010 was perhaps their biggest Stanley Cup embarrassment – the top seed losing to the eighth-seed Montreal Canadiens in seven games in the first round.

Before that in the Ovechkin era, there were the 2006 games in Turin, Italy, but that was only Ovechkin’s second season in the league and the Capitals were just starting to build up the roster, with a 29-41-12 record. It really doesn’t come into play for these purposes.

But the 2010 and 2014 Olympics seasons do – the worst playoff series defeat for Washington in the “Rock The Red” era and not even making the playoffs.

Now, while we are crowning everyone as Stanley Cup kings, let us not forget that owner Ted Leonsis publicly declared he would allow Ovechkin to leave the team for several weeks in February and go play for Russia in the Winter Olympics — even though Bettman had ruled that the league would not participate.

“He knows I have his back on this one,” Leonsis told ESPN.com in December 2016. “If this is what’s so important to him and he wants to go to the Olympics, he should be able to do that. Alex has meant so much to us. He doesn’t ask for much back. … I’m not shy about saying it, I would support the player in this instance.”

I think it’s safe to say that decision would have likely been a disaster.

As it was, the bat was taken out of Ovechkin’s hands and did not wind up putting both he and Leonsis in an embarrassing situation when the International Ice Hockey Federation told the NHL that no players under contract would be allowed to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

There are a lot of big and small moments that lead to a championship season. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby’s historic save in game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals was one of them.

Gary Bettman’s decision to kiss off the Olympics may have been another.

⦁ Thom Loverro’s weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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