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On Ovechkin, the Olympics, and Closing the Door

On the eve of training camp, the captain issues a statement and prepares to put his Olympic dream on hold

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Late last night, Alex Ovechkin (via the Caps) put out a statement about the 2018 Winter Olympics. The statement was pure Ovi, right down to the double exclamation points, and spoke about, among other things, his family’s history and connection to the Olympics and his personal disappointment at the NHL not allowing him to be asked to represent his country.

In it he sums up perfectly just how unfair it has been to the players (emphasis added):

We never have to make choice between our team and our country my whole career. I love the Capitals and my teammates here as much as I love my country and I know all the other NHL players feel the same for their teams. We should not have to be in position to make this choice.

It is that last line that is both particularly poignant and 100% correct. Wherever the blame lies, whether you think it’s the NHL’s fault or the IIHF’s fault or both, the way it played out really put the players in a bad spot.

Most of them, as Ovechkin notes, have never had to pit their NHL job against their love of playing for their country - and as the NHL began slamming the door shut on the Olympic option, players who spoke out against it were seen as the bad guys who selfishly valued two weeks of Olympic “glory” over what they were paid to do during the rest of the season.

Now, finally, there seems to be some resolution that takes the burden off of the players’ collective shoulders - and in that there is, oddly enough, a bit of relief.

Even if (as Ovechkin also succinctly says)... it sucks.

Because it is no longer about whether a player chooses to defy the NHL’s order and go to the Olympics if asked; they’re simply not allowed to be asked. It closed the loopholes, ended the discussion - and ultimately forced Alex Ovechkin to concede defeat in his brutally honest (and at times heartbreaking) statement.

It also, to some extent, took the burden off of us as fans. Before this agreement was reached, and before this statement came out, there was still a very good chance that Ovechkin (and perhaps others) would defy the NHL. If that happened, it would set off an unknown chain of consequences, all of which would be miserable to experience as a fan - anything from punishments that could handed down by the League, to millions of columns and thinkpieces dedicated to bashing Ovechkin, to the possibility of tension between him and his Caps teammates.

It would pit our loyalty to the team and the sport we love against a personal affection for the face of the franchise. And while the logical part of the brain knows that removing Ovechkin from the lineup for that long would be tough to overcome, or at the very least not ideal, it was hard not to want this for him. While team loyalty usually supplants loyalty to an individual... for many of us it’s a bit more difficult when the individual in question is Alex Ovechkin.

So yes, the NHL and the IIHF have made it official, and so has Ovechkin. Ultimately all three probably made the “right” choice (if such a thing exists), no matter how convoluted, roundabout, and downright annoying the journey was to get there.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a little heartbroken for Alex Ovechkin, to appreciate just how difficult that statement was for him to write... and to hope that he will get another shot at that Olympic gold medal someday.

Here’s Ovechkin’s full statement:

“I wanted to make this statement so that my words are clear and nobody misunderstands what I am saying. The Olympics are in my blood and everybody knows how much I love my country. Ever since I was a kid and all the time I have played in the NHL, NHL players have played in the Olympic Games. We never have to make choice between our team and our country my whole career. I love the Capitals and my teammates here as much as I love my country and I know all the other NHL players feel the same for their teams. We should not have to be in position to make this choice.

My mom was a two-time Olympic champion and when I start to play hockey I dream that if I have chance to play for my country I will do it every time they ask me. Ever since I was teenager I have played for Junior Russia National team whenever they ask me to. Ever since I was good enough to play on Men’s National Team, whenever they ask me I play. When they ask me to be part of Olympics Closing Ceremony in Vancouver before Sochi get the Olympic Games I said ok let’s do it. When they ask me to be Ambassador for Sochi Olympic Games I did it. When they ask me to go to Greece and be first Russian to carry Olympic flame on way to Sochi I do it. When they ask me to play in World Cup I do it. I am proud that we win on Junior team and for the National team in World Championships but we do not win the most important thing yet. Olympic Gold Medal.

I see the news this week and I am very disappointed that IOC, IIHF and NHL put me and all NHL players in this position when some of the best players in world do not have chance to play in the Olympic Games. This is not just about me but all the NHL players who want to play and have a chance to win Gold for their country. Our countries are now not allowed to ask us to play in the Olympics. Me, my teammates and all players who want to go all lose. So do all the fans of hockey with this decision that we are not allowed to be invited. NHL players in the Olympics is good for hockey and good for Olympics. It sucks that will we not be there to play!!

I said every time I was asked since last Olympics that nobody is going to tell me I can’t play because my country was going to be allowed to ask me. Now the IIHF and NHL say my country is not allowed to ask anybody in the NHL to play and there is nothing to talk about anymore. I talk to Ted about this last year and he support me and have my back and understand what I want to do if I was allowed to be asked to go. Me and my family thank him for his support.

There is nothing like Olympic Games. It is still my dream to win an Olympic Gold medal for my country. I hope things will change and all of us will have a chance to go again in 2022. What’s most important to remember is kids have lots of dreams. My focus as it always is this time of year is on my other dream as a kid, to try to win the Stanley Cup. I am excited training camp has started in Washington and the time for talking is done. We just have to go out and do it and I will try my hardest to help my teammates win like I do every year since I came to the NHL.”