Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sorry, William


With apologies to my dear friend Bill Shakespeare, the question is not, "To be or not to be," it is, in fact, "To play or not to play?"

I refer to whether NHL players should participate in the Olympics. They'll suit up for next winter's Games in Vancouver, but as of right now, that will be the end of it.

Should it?

Alex Ovechkin doesn't think so. He says he'll play in the 2014 Games in Sochi come hell or high water. It's hard to blame him, since that is his home country and there isn't much that would bring him more joy than to return the gold medal to Mother Russia. Recently, Evgeni Malkin stated the same. Geno actually went a step further, alluding to the possibility that he'll play in the KHL after 2014.

The kicker? Malkin's NHL contract with Pittsburgh expires after 2014. He'll be a free agent. And you know the KHL will come calling. (Yes, I'm cringing at that thought.)

As for Ovechkin, well, he has a contract that runs beyond 2014. If he has Ted Leonsis' approval, Ovechkin will be in Russia's locker room.

If those two stars say they're going to play, I think they're going to play. The NHL isn't going to do anything to either player. In fact, given the recent public relations disasters they've been having, it's in the best interest of the league not to sanction either player.

Personally, I'm on the fence. Actually, I was writing up my arguments for why players should not participate in the Olympics. Then I stopped as a new argument hit me. But here's the first part.

I'm very much a pessimistic person by nature, and I believe most things that will happen are only going to be bad. So I'm concerned with injuries suffered in a game that isn't what the NHL players are paid to play.

Injuries are part of any sport and always a risk to happen. But a player being injured in an NHL game is different than if he gets hurt during a game for the Olympics. He's being paid to play in the National Hockey League. He's not being paid to play in the Olympics. It's a club-or-country argument that often comes up in soccer.

If a player gets injured while competing for his country, really, it might as well be as if the player was injured while in a jet skiing race at the county fair. He's partaking in some competition that his contract does not cover, and suffering an injury in such a competition will jeopardize his ability to fulfill his signed and legal contract.

I do not want to see Brooks Orpik, wearing a Team USA sweater, try to take off the head of the maple leaf-wearing Sidney Crosby. I'm more interested in my players winning the Stanley Cup, hockey's ultimate prize, rather than a gold medal. Maybe that makes me a bad American.

Capitals fans should wonder at the possibility that Ovechkin - a fierce hitter - will drive Mike Green's head through the boards when Russia meets Canada.

And here's the thing: If those players aren't trying to do that, then they're not competing as hard as they possibly can. And doesn't that dampen the whole spirit of the competition? These players should be going all-out, not making sure they don't hurt select members of the opposition.

Never mind also the condensed schedule as a result of the two-week layoff for the Olympics.

Here's where I'll reverse course and provide the opposite end of the argument.

I mentioned soccer earlier, and how, often a player faces a club-or-country decision, whether he'll play for his professional team (i.e. the one paying him) or if he'll dress for his country. When I watch soccer's World Cup, I want to see the best players on the field as often as possible.

Do I differ in that regard compared to hockey? I'm not sure. What is different, however, is I'm no particular fan of any one soccer team. If Cristiano Ronaldo pulls a hamstring playing for Portugal in the World Cup, I'll be upset that he can't play in Portugal's next game, not that Ronaldo can't return healthy for Real Madrid of Spain's La Liga.

But if Malkin separates his shoulder playing for Russia on a hit by Dion Phaneuf, I'm not going to be happy. Dan Bylsma won't be happy. Mario Lemieux won't be happy. That's our guy being hurt. If Malkin leads Russia to the gold medal, the three of us still won't be happy. None of us are Russian.

Having pros in the Olympics can lead to moments like this. Certainly, to grow the game, to get positive exposure for the game, you should have the best players on the world's largest stage.

It will also take away the chance for moments like this.

If I'm a non-hockey fan, I want to see the best players possible if I'm going to watch Olympic hockey. As a hockey fan, I'd rather my guys try to win the Cup. Should the NHL pander to the non-hockey fans to grow the game? I suppose that's the logical course. I'm not going to stop being an NHL fan because the players participate in the Olympics. But maybe the NHL gains fans by having their best players in the Olympics where more people will actually see them play.

For the good of the game, the players should be in the Olympics. For the good of the NHL teams, I don't think they should play.

I am willing to make this concession: If the players accept playing in the Olympics in exchange for outlawing these cheating, long-term, low cap hit contracts, I'll take that trade any day.

(A quick aside: Those contracts are legal, but violate the spirit of the salary cap. They're immoral, a loophole, and they should be taken advantage of while GMs can, but they should be outlawed.)

So, I still don't know where I stand on this issue, but if I had to make a call, I guess I'll say let them play in the Olympics. Every time one of my Penguins goes into the corner or takes a hit, though, I'll be keeping an eye on him to see if he comes up lame.

But if letting the players play in the 2014 Games means Malkin will sign an extension in Pittsburgh, then by all means, Mr. Bettman, make it happen.


Anonymous said...

So what about the Miracle team? None of them were professionals and they won the gold over highly trained Russian team. Olympics alas are NO LONGER what they set out to be-amateurs competing against amateurs!

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

Isn't that the whole point of the discussion, though? Whether Olympics should be amateurs only or not?