For Russia With Love


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I’ll start off by saying that the NHL is, in my book, the greatest of all the sports leagues in the world. But hockey is also the greatest game. Lately, that’s exactly why I’m having a really tough time accepting or justifying the NHL’s debate about letting NHL player participate in the next winter Olympics in Sochi, 2014. I’m really not sure why the debate even exists.

Is it a really sneaky revenge aimed at the IIHF because of all the accusations about the NHL, CHL, OHL development programs stealing Europe’s best and brightest prospects and making them a part of the North American game? Let’s just clarify. I don’t think that’s the case at all, since every player has a choice, and they choose to come to North America. Why is that?

It’s because the development programs in place throughout the continent are unmatched in the world of hockey. It’s because it gives players healthy competition against best players their age in the entire world which in turn makes them better players. And yes, it’s because one day, they just might make it in the NHL. You can hardly blame the NHL, or the North American game for a) being the best, having the best programs or b) the fact they offer more hockey education to players neglected in their home countries which put hockey not second or third, but forth, fifth on their list of sporting interest.

Is it a territorial battle between the NHL and the KHL that’s the main reason for the boycott? I really doubt it. First off, realistically speaking, the only thing the KHL can do right now is pick up scraps and leftovers, to put it kind of ugly and unfitting, of the NHL. They can’t even stop Russia’s youth from packing their bags and going off to North America. As for the money? Well, I can tell you that there are in fact only a handful of teams that can pay premium dollar to a certain player, 4 teams at best. And even they have a budget which can only be surpassed if the player is a genuine superstar.

Medvedev and the league can pay a premium to a superstar for playing in the league, something that has been used to try and lure Kovalchuk back, but how long would it take for other clubs to start rebelling about the fact the KHL is basically favoring one, two teams by partially paying wages to their superstar player? The question becomes: If the future was so bright back there, what player wouldn’t want to spend time playing in his own country, for big bucks and for the good of the sport? The answer, it isn’t. To conclude, the KHL probably just sounds more dangerous than it is. Like a modern bogeyman for North American hockey players – if you don’t backcheck the KHL will get you. But the bogeyman isn’t real. Latest return of players like Kovalev and Zherdev who honestly aren’t able to play in the National Hockey League anymore just proves my point even further.

So what is it? Why would the NHL stop sending players on one of hockey’s grandest stages? I hate to say it, but it’s greed. It’s putting the good of the game behind NHL corporate interest, neglecting the grand scheme of things. And it’s hypocritical to say the least. A case of double standard. Now that the games in Vancouver have been completed with a showcase of North American hockey power, now the NHL decides to pull out. Now that Canada got its gold medal, when Crosby (whom I adore) became the ultimate dream for any and every kid wanting to play hockey anywhere in the world, now they talk of a decision to pull the plug? Well, I’m sorry, it just seems like somebody doesn’t want to share the wealth. Russia boasts a ton of worldly talent, the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin, Andrei Markov, Simeon Varlamov, Evgeni Nabokov, Sergei Gonchar. And now you’re telling me you’d deny the Russian people the same privilege of going for gold at home with all guns blazing, you’d deny them the glory of trying to win it all with quality opposition just like Canada did in Vancouver? Is that fair? The NHL teams risked injury and playoff hopes in order to compete for gold in Vancouver so isn’t it fair to do the same in Sochi or any other future Olympics capital? Besides, like I said, Olympics are a great showcase for the game of hockey.

They are an opportunity for fans who aren’t that much into hockey to see first hand why our game is the best one out there. In the end, at least for players, it isn’t even a question of promoting the game, it’s about something much more meaningful. National pride. Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, a two time league MVP, intends to play for Russia in the 2014 Sochi Olympics even if the league forbids it. “It is what I want and what I’m going to do,” he once told reporters in an interview in Toronto. Nobody, outside the hockey association of that particular country, has the right to forbid a player from playing for his country. Actually, nobody can. It’s about pride, passion and tradition. NHL has its appeals but so do the Olympics. It would be wrong to start breaking the tradition of the world’s best appearing on the world’s oldest sports manifestation.

The Stanley Cup is to North Americans what Olympics are to us Europeans (make this writer the exception), you can’t just take it away whenever it suits the almighty dollar. Ted Leonsis is a textbook example. A man who will grant Ovechkin any wish, because let’s face it, without him, he doesn’t have a franchise. “It’s a players’ league, you know, and the players want to do it. And they should have a strong voice. We will support them, but if I were a player, I would be asking, ‘Where is all that money going?’ Somebody is getting paid billions and billions of dollars and the players aren’t, the league is not. …” Why should they even care? They get their cash for the hard work they put for their owners and fans in the NHL. This is for their souls. For the souls of a nation that deserves to witness hockey at its grandest.

Now,  I really do comprehend owners’ concerns because their investments would be putting their bodies on the line somewhere other than rinks their owners pay big money for them to play in, but why didn’t that bother them to a point of stopping the whole process prior to Vancouver? Yes, exactly. Because it was Vancouver.

And really, if it did happen, how many elite European players would the NHL be able to keep from participating? With Ovechkin leading the way, not many. And it would be a good opportunity to separate mice from men. You see, the problem is, with some people, even if you try, you can’t put a price on playing in front of your own crowd, in your national team colors, for your country. There are probably not a lot of European fans that hold the Stanley Cup to such a high esteem as yours truly, but I can also tell you first hand, a national team sweater, in the Olympics, is something sacred. That’s why Ovechkin will play. And that’s why I applaud him.


What do you think on this particular subject? Should the NHL let its players participate or are their concerns more valid?