The NHL is officially out of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and it appears there’s little chance the Chicago Blackhawks’ star players will able to circumvent that ruling, regardless of where owner Rocky Wirtz stands on the matter.
According to TSN’s Rick Westhead, NHLPA head Don Fehr told agents at a recent meeting in Vancouver that he expects the NHL to prevent owners from allowing individual players to participate in the Olympics. For many current players, this would be their best shot at getting out of the leaguewide decision, as some owners could acquiesce star players’ requests to go.
At least one owner, Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals, has said publicly that he would allow his stars to play in Pyeongchang, South Korea, regardless of whether the NHL participated. The comments presumably were directed toward Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, who has represented Russia in past Olympics and presumably wants to continue doing that in 2018.
When Leonsis said he would allow his stars to go to Olympics, he even said he’d take on whatever punishment the NHL threw his way. “I might get fined, I might get punished in some way, but I feel I'm in partnership with Nick [Backstrom] and Braden [Holtby] and Alex."
It’s unclear how the NHL would prevent owners from making these choices beyond punishments such as fines or taking away draft picks, but it’s apparent the league will view players who go to the Olympics as being in violation of their professional contracts. The league may even try to take these decisions out of teams’ hands entirely.
The players have already been making their feelings on the situation clear. The NHLPA released a strongly worded statement Monday night calling the league’s decision “shortsighted,” and many big names have said publicly that they want to represent their countries.
Last month, Ovechkin told ESPN that he would represent his country whether the NHL was in or out.
"My decision is the same," Ovechkin said. "So, I don't know what's going to happen right now, but we just have to wait what they say and we'll see. ...
"It's a situation where you don't know what's going to happen. But obviously I said I'm going to play.''
Dylan Larkin expressed his disappointment with being unable to show fans “what hockey is all about” at the Games to ESPN’s Craig Custance after the news came out. Erik Karlsson, arguably Sweden’s best player, offered similar thoughts.
This extends to the Blackhawks, too. ESPN recently interviewed a ton of players on their thoughts about Olympic participation, and while Duncan Keith didn’t say he’d play regardless of the NHL’s stance, he made it clear he wanted in.
"As a player, the level of hockey there (I know it's high in the playoffs, but...) when you're in a one-game-takes-all and you're on Canada playing the U.S., there's no better hockey you're going to be a part of,” Keith told ESPN. “As a competitive guy, I want to be part of those games.
“And obviously I want to represent my country again and bring home the gold. On top of all that, it's good for hockey to have the best players in the world at the Olympics. Otherwise, what is it, really?"
This is where there was some possibility that Wirtz, who has made sure to keep his stars satisfied over the years, would step in and allow Keith, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and others to make their own decisions. But now this could take the decision out of his hands, which would leave the league office to get the brunt of the criticism for missing the Olympics.
That is, unless certain owners just decide to deal with whatever punishments the NHL throws their way, which is admittedly unlikely. It’ll be interesting to see just what the league does if a player goes to Korea anyway, though. Based on the latest reports, it sounds like there will be a cost for doing so.