Next question: Sochi hopefuls are trying to be diplomatic about Russia's controversial ant-gay law. (Susan Walsh/AP)
By Allan Muir
The players at USA Hockey's pre-Olympic orientation camp knew the questions were coming. And they were well prepared.
At least, that's how it felt yesterday when three of them addressed the issue of the anti-gay propaganda legislation that was recently enacted in Russia. The answers felt a little . . . scripted, and not quite on point regarding the players take on the Olympic host counry. Instead, the players' carefully crafted message was geared more towards inclusivity in the NHL, and their answers played like a PSA for the You Can Play Project.
That's a good thing . . . but it was also a neat sidestepping of the controversy.
"I think the position of USA Hockey is [that] hockey is for everyone," Blues captain David Backes said. "I think as an American who believes in the freedom that we have and the way that we run our society and culture, everyone has the right to participate in sports or live their lifestyle the way that they want. I’m supportive of anyone. We had our first gay basketball professional athlete come out this year. My stance then, and now, is anyone is welcome in my locker room with the St. Louis Blues that lives that lifestyle. I don’t care if you’re black, white, green, purple, gold [or] what you think. As long as you’re committed to the team aspect and the way that we’re playing, you’re always welcome on my team.
Backes eventually got back around to the topic at hand . . . sort of.
"I think the guys on this team would all agree that we’re going over to play a great sport, but we don’t have to agree with everything they do and they don’t have to agree with everything we do. We’ve got our views and we’ll see how that all pans out," he said.
Minnesota winger Zach Parise, an early favorite to captain the American team in Sochi, echoed Backes.
"With the [National Hockey League Players' Association] supporting it and USA Hockey, they are always preaching everyone has the right to play," Parise told NHL.com. "I don’t discriminate. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think it is fair, and I don’t agree with it."
"We all know that hockey is for everyone, and we take that pride in that," added Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle. "Especially guys in the NHL, we know we cater to all aspects of life and take a great deal of pride in it.
"We know that hockey here is for everyone. Everyone can play and do what they love and we support [that]. If you look at the NHL and what it has done with [the You Can Play Project] to get the game to be like that, it is really good for our game."
Those are all worthwhile sentiments, and they reinforce that NHL players on the whole are more interested in what you can do to help a team on the ice than in who you're dating.
But it's also a dodge that seems calculated to ensure that nothing said now will blow up in the team's face when it arrives in Sochi next February.
That left it to Team USA's director of player personnel Brian Burke to do the heavy lifting.
"Our view on this is very simple: USA Hockey believes hockey is for everybody," he told NHL.com. "USA Hockey supports You Can Play. USA Hockey deplores this legislation. But we are not going to call for a boycott. That punishes the athlete. We expect the Russian government to guarantee the safety of our athletes, coaches, officials, families, friends. We expect that group will be immune from prosecution during the Games.
"I think until these laws are repealed, my call on the [International Olympic Committee] and the U.S. Olympic Committee is to make sure Russia is not awarded an international competition of any kind until these laws are repealed. People forget that when the IOC granted these Games to Sochi, these rules were not on the book. They are relatively recent. It has to change. It's wrong. I don't think that when you go into a host country you should dictate what they do, but this is a basic human right that is being trampled and it has to change. Until it does, in my mind, no federation should be granted any games of any kind in Russia."
Those are the sort of strong words you'd expect from a master of pugnacity like Burke, and exactly what needed to be said. He was bold, clear and uncompromising.
He was also a very smart manager.
Burke's a tough guy. If there's any heat applied by the Russians as a result of this -- if they decide to deny him a visa or hassle him when he gets to Sochi -- he can handle it. And by stepping up and tackling the tough question himself head on, the players, who may or may not have had more to say, were kept well out of the line of fire.
It's an approach we may see more often as the Games draw closer.