BOSTON – It’s clear that many players around the NHL aren’t happy with the way negotiations are trending for league involvement in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said this week that no meetings are scheduled between the NHL and the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly reportedly added that “unless something changes we’re not going.”
Prominent foreign players, such as Russian-born Alex Ovechkin, have indicated they’re going to play whether or not the NHL stops their regular season for an Olympic break. Jakub Voracek lashed out at Bettman and Daly in clear disappointment that a deal hasn’t been struck at this point for Olympic participation.
Those in the B’s dressing room echoed the same sentiment, but in more muted than some of their European peers.
“I think it would be disappointing. I think guys want to go. We'll see how it turns out," said Patrice Bergeron, who has won gold medals with Team Canada in back-to-back Olympics. "I think it's the biggest sporting event in the world. As an athlete you want to participate. I’ve had two amazing experiences. It's hard for me to say no to that. I thought it was amazing hockey for fans too, to watch."
It’s all subject to change, of course, in what amounts to negotiating between the NHL and the Olympic governing bodies and the NHL has indicated it’s working off two schedules for the 2017-18 season: One with an Olympic break and one with a revamped bye week schedule that makes some tweaks from this season.
Bruins forward David Backes played for Team USA in both 2010 and 2014 and hoped that other NHL players would get the same chance he did to play for his country.
“Whether I had, or have, a chance to play in another Olympics a year from now I’m not sure, but the Olympics I have been able to participate in have been some of the best times I’ve had playing hockey,” said Backes, who has six times represented USA Hockey in World Championships, Olympics and the World Cup of Hockey. “Representing my country in doing what I do for a living was exhilarating and one of the proudest moments I’ve had in the game. Whether I’m able to go or not, I think that next generation deserves that opportunity.
“From my standpoint seeing guys elevate their games and get lifted to national hero status the way T.J. Oshie did during my time playing with him in St. Louis, and just seeing guys do what they do when they get onto that next stage and show that to the world…to me that’s great for the game. But we don’t make that decision in a vacuum. It needs to be a conglomerate effort and we’ll see how it sorts out. If it were my vote we’d have NHL players in the Olympics, but that’s above me except for my little input with the [NHLPA].”
Adding to the complications would be, for example, if Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom leave the Washington Capitals for three weeks to play in the Olympics, and in doing so, tip the competitive balances for both the NHL and the Winter Games. That’s obviously less than ideal, so the hope is still that the posturing and negotiations turn into an agreement, but there’s also a sense that the NHL is much more interest in the 2022 Winter Games in China than the next winter’s tournament in PyeongChang.
“There’s competitive balance in the Olympics with certain guys [potentially] being able to go and certain guys not being able to go," Backes said. "Then there’s competitive balance back in the NHL if Ovechkin goes, and if he goes that mean Backstrom goes and Oshie goes, or whoever else? If they’re missing five or six guys and they play six or seven games while those guys are absent, I don’t think [Washington is] as strong as they would be with those guys there.
“It’s a little bit of business factoring in, but it’s also best for everyone if some sort of agreement gets reached. We’ll leave that in somebody else’s hands that’s a really good negotiator because I’m a hockey player.”
As Backes alluded, a definitive decision hasn’t been reached, though the IOC previously said that it needed to know by March to make certain the proper arrangements could be made. It sounds like the NHL isn’t budging until they like what they hear from the Olympic decision makers.