Less than two months after the end of the Tokyo Olympics, the Winter Games in Beijing are just on the horizon. As of now, NHL players will be allowed to participate. While the league has expressed concerns about the games given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this remains a subject in which the players remain very much in sync, including a number of the Capitals Olympic hopefuls.
"It's the pinnacle of sports," defenseman John Carlson, an American, said. "I think it's great for the players because we all want to do it, but it's also I think just unbelievable for the sport."
“I can’t wait, obviously," said Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov. "I’ve never played and it’s one of my dreams of my life. Hope we’re gonna make it."
It is well known that the NHL is not a fan of pausing the regular season for multiple weeks so its top players can risk injury playing in the Olympic tournament. This year comes with the added fears over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new CBA, however, includes language allowing for the players to participate if the NHL and NHLPA could reach an agreement over participation with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee. An agreement was reached in September, but it includes an opt-out clause in case of COVID-19 issues.
Things would have to be pretty bad for the NHL to risk what will no doubt be a widely unpopular decision among the players if it refuses at this late date to let them participate.
"Obviously Olympic Games is most fun time of athlete career," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, an outspoken advocate for Olympic participation, said. "You represent your country."
Caught in the middle between the players and the NHL are the coaches and management.
"I think from a pure business perspective, you would [prefer the players not participate], but I get the players love to play in the Olympics," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "I mean, I enjoy watching the Olympics, I enjoy watching the best players in the world playing against each other. It's fun for me to watch that. But injuries, wear-and-tear, pressure, emotional drain, all that stuff doesn't do the best for our team."
"I guess it's got two sides to it," Washington head coach Peter Laviolette said. "You've got the professional side of the Washington Capitals and your players, you'd like to see them resting and you'd like to see injury-free hockey. Then I watch the games and they're pretty exciting. it's the best players in the world playing for their country so that's exciting as well."
Laviolette represented Team USA twice in the Olympics as a player and served as team captain in 1994. He was also an assistant coach for Team USA in 2014.
"I know the players really enjoy it," Laviolette said. "I've been part of a lot of Olympics, I've really enjoyed it."
But the Olympics could prove detrimental for the Caps, one of the oldest teams in the NHL, as a number of players are likely to participate.
Ovechkin, thus far, has been the only Capitals player named to an Olympic squad as national teams have begun revealing their first three players. But many more Caps are expected to follow.
Orlov and Carlson are very likely to make their national rosters. Denmark's addition also makes Lars Eller a likely participant.
"It will be the first time my country qualifies and that’s a big milestone for sports in all of my country," Eller said, "And I’m really looking forward to potentially playing in that.”
Nicklas Backstrom is also very likely to represent Sweden if he is healthy. That remains in question right now with Backstrom still fighting a hip injury. In addition, T.J. Oshie, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are players likely to warrant consideration for the United States, Russia and the Czech Republic respectively.
Of those players, Ovechkin, Orlov, Carlson, Eller, Backstrom and Oshie are all over 30. That many veteran players playing a two-week tournament in the middle of the regular season on the other side of the world is going to take its toll.
But the risks to the team and to the league's star players should also prove beneficial to the game of hockey and interest in the game in the U.S.
"I know when I got to play last time, I came back and random non-hockey fans we would get into a conversation and they'd be blown away of what they got introduced to because maybe they would never watch an NHL game, but now they do because of the Olympics," Carlson said. "I think from that standpoint it's well worth it."