Will NHL stars defy league and play in 2018 Olympics?
- The NHL won't participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, but many players strongly disagree with the league's decision.
TORONTO — Evgeny Kuznetsov considered the question carefully and began to answer. As he did, he placed his right hand on his heart.
Not for dramatic effect, but because the answer to the question mattered that much to him.
"If Russia needs us, of course," he said after being asked if he'd still go to play for Russia in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. This comes after yesterday's news from the NHL that, for a variety of reasons including scheduling and insurance costs, they would not be sending players to the upcoming games.
"It's in my heart."
If there's anyone who believes that yesterday's announcement would be the end of the "Will they or won't they?" Olympic debate, they haven't yet spoken to Kuznetsov. The 24-year-old, like so many other prominent NHL players, believes strongly in representing his country on the world's biggest stage.
"All the players want to go," said Swedish forward Nicklas Backstrom. "It's a dream to play in the Olympics for your country."
Backstrom's message was reiterated throughout the visitors dressing room at the Air Canada Centre as the Capitals prepared to take on the Maple Leafs. The Capitals have a number of prominent Olympians on their roster, none more so than Russian Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin has maintained all along that even if NHL players would not attend the Olympics, he would still go. He said as recently as last month that regardless of the NHL's decision, he planned on going.
And on Tuesday, he didn't change his course.
"I didn't change my mind and I won't," he said, swarmed by a large group of media outside the Capitals' dressing room.
Ovechkin kept his comments brief, reminding the assembled media that Capitals owner Ted Leonis "…understands my view." Leonis said in December he supports Ovechkin's decision. "Everybody wants to be there," added Ovechkin.
For him, national pride trumps any other restrictions.
"It's my country," he said. "Everybody wants to play there. It's the biggest opportunity of my life to play in the Olympic games."
That was the overall theme Tuesday: just how important it is personally for players to play in the games.
After all, this is not an event the players reap incredible financial benefits from. Nor is this the NHL-sanctioned World Cup of Hockey. This is an entirely different beast and the emotional weight of yesterday's announcement was palpable.
"Growing up as a kid you dream about winning a Stanley Cup and you dream about playing for your country in the Olympics," said American forward T.J. Oshie, he of the 2014 USA-Russia shootout fame. "It's unfortunate."
Oshie remains hopeful yesterday's announcement wasn't actually the be-all and end-all. Ultimately, the decision for NHL players to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi came in July 2013.
"For some reason I just feel like we're going to find a way to resolve it," he said. "I can't imagine us not going."
He's not alone. Given the influx of young talent from across the potential competing countries that has joined the league since the 2014 Olympics, from Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews to Patrik Laine, the upcoming Olympics are an opportunity for the league to showcase the next wave of stars. Nothing is set in stone of course, but given that the 2018 Olympics would have featured Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, both older than 30, it's possible the upcoming games would have been their last.
And Oshie understands it's time to welcome in that younger generation for its first Olympic experience. "And because of the location, it's important to broaden the fan base," he said.
"And selfishly, it's a fun tournament," he added. "It brings a lot of pride to put on the USA jersey for me and go out there and play against the top players in the world."
Down the hall, most of the Maple Leafs deflected questions about the Olympics, including Auston Matthews. For what it's worth, Leafs and Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said he was disappointed but continued to deflect Olympic questions in favor of focusing on the game against the Capitals.
He did, however, summarize his feelings on the Olympics succinctly before leaving his press conference: "I've been twice. Greatest event you'll ever go to in your life."
Braden Holtby, who would have been a likely goalie for Team Canada, was asked if he would join his Capitals teammates and leave the NHL during the season to play.
"I wouldn't be able to go away from me team here," he said. "I couldn't do it. That's just personal. Everyone's priorities are different."
Monday's announcement and Tuesday's backlash showcase how much this decision means not just to players but for the future of the game worldwide.
"I still hope they're going to let us play," said Kuznetsov.
Many in the hockey world probably agree with him.