2014 Winter Olympics: NHL Players Prepare to Head to Sochi, As They Should

Bruce Bennett

The NHL might be internally grumbling about having to shut down its season for two weeks. But despite their problems, the Olympics remains the premier competition, and it's a huge positive that the best hockey players in the world are there.

If you'll excuse me for a moment of self-indulgence here, I'd like to make an announcement.

Hi, my name is Erin, and I have an Olympics problem.

I have it in the summer, when I'll find myself watching team handball and synchronized diving and find myself caring vehemently about the outcome. I have it during the trials, when I'll watch short-track speed skating and have no idea why they funnel people to B, C and D finals rather than just eliminating them. And I have it in the winter, when I watch athletes in most events struggle to avoid the failure that makes those sports so potentially frightening.

Yes, the Dallas Stars still have a fairly massive two points on the line tomorrow before they take two and a half weeks off to let their goalie, wunderkind and captain head off to Russia. Yes, I'll probably secretly feel a twinge of pride if and when Jamie Benn or Valeri Nichushkin scores (as long as it's not against the USA, because then I might just laugh until I cry). And yes, I understand the NHL owners' issues with sending their players halfway around the world and getting only perhaps some good publicity in return.

But I can't help it. I love hockey in the Olympics. I love everything in the Olympics.

I want the best athletes in the world, professional status be damned, to compete once every four years for their country on a global stage. I want reasons to root for Anze Kopitar (because wouldn't Slovenia upsetting someone of note be rather awesome? Of course it would). I want memories like poor, maligned Tommy Salo against Belarus. I want to wear the ridiculous shiny plastic stars on the shoulder yoke of the USA hockey jersey to work and feel good about it.

That's not to say there aren't problems with any games and especially the ever-corrupt IOC. From cronyism to bribery to doping scandals to the looming threats of terrorism, there's something to talk about at any games. And in Sochi, there are certainly problems regarding potential spying by the Russian government and/or hackers to an impressive range of unfinished media and spectator hotels.

And to be fair to Sochi, there are always things that are problematic for host cities, particularly smaller ones that had to build a ton of infrastructure. Athens was a mess for a while. Turin had ticket sales problems as well as transportation glitches. Vancouver had courses that bordered on unsafe, one of which sadly led to the death of an athlete.

There's been a fair amount of talk as to whether or not the NHL will continue participation in the Olympics after this year. The 2018 Winter Games are in Pyeongchang, South Korea, after all, and the games that the NHL got the least out of in terms of good publicity and carry over were the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan. I can see why that might make them wary.

Because of this, there's some significant chatter that the league will decline to send its players in four years - though I would like to remind you that it is not a unilateral NHL decision but one that is negotiated between the very much anti-Olympics NHL and somewhat more pro-Olympics NHLPA. Heck, if the league had their way, the NHL wouldn't be in Sochi now and probably wouldn't send its players to any tournament outside of North America (if they even did that).

But as Elliotte Friedman wrote yesterday in his 30 Thoughts column, the players want to be there (and you could see that from the disappointment from players like Jack Johnson or Logan Couture, the rush to get back from Steven Stamkos and Mikko Koivu, and the happiness from Martin St. Louis at being named as an injury replacement).

These examples are why I believe it's not a certainty Sochi will mark the end of Olympic participation by NHLers. Much of the league wants no part of it, but the players love it. Being an Olympian is a big deal, and even though the World Cup is a better financial benefit, it's simply not as attractive a competition for the competitors.

There was a rumour that when the NHL and the NHLPA eventually got around to revealing the new "international calendar," it would include an announcement Olympic participation was over. Both sides denied this. At the rate things currently move, we'll probably see an agreement 10 minutes before the tournament begins in South Korea in 2018.

All that is to say take anyone who reports that the situation in 2018 is a done deal with a huge grain of salt. The NHL could very well send its players or it may very well try to keep them home, though you wonder if the higher-end European players might head over even if the NHL declines given the huge importance placed on the Olympic hockey medals in their cultures.

That threat, even though the games are in Asia and not Europe or North America - likely looms large as well. Talking about the creation of the World Cup of Hockey replacing what those kids grew up dreaming about, as much as Canadians grew up dreaming about the Stanley Cup, is comically missing the point. Fans care about it because it's best-on-best. Players care about it because it's what they watched their heroes compete in as kids. The World Cups are fun, but they're certainly not at that same level.

Finally, the Olympics will certainly come back to western Europe or North America again, and the IOC is not likely to look kindly on the NHL choosing to allow its players to participate with certain geographic specifications. If and when the Games come back to Canada or the U.S., the IOC could very well make life difficult for the NHL if its players pull out of 2018 and beyond. It's an immensely complicated situation for the league and PA to sort through, which is why nothing is certain at this point.

But for this year at least, the players are headed out to Sochi just as soon as their regular-season commitments wrap up, with Zdeno Chara already there to participate in the Opening Ceremonies today. Here at DBD, we'll have a bunch of Olympic hockey coverage just as soon as the Stars wrap up their stretch of play with the game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday. There's not likely to be much team news other than that related to the Olympics during the next few weeks, but if something comes down, rest assured we'll have that as well.

So welcome to the winter games. May your late night television viewing be filled with curlers, biathletes and, of course, some of the best international hockey you'll ever see.

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