World Cup no replacement for Olympics in players’ eyes

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Team Russia’s Alex Ovechkin swats at an airborne puck over Pavel Datsyuk (13) and Team Canada’s Jonathan Toews during an exhibition in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. (AP Photo)

TORONTO — Jonathan Toews likes just about everything about the World Cup of Hockey. He loves representing Canada in his traditional No. 16 jersey. He revels in the high level of competition. And he’s excited for the springboard effect the tournament could have when the puck drops on the NHL regular season on Oct. 12. Based on the surprisingly intense pre-tournament exhibition games — particularly the two chippy contests between Canada and the United States — the World Cup should offer tremendous hockey starting on Saturday.

But, come on. It’s not the Olympics. It likely won’t ever be the Olympics. And seemingly every elite NHL player wants to keep participating in future Olympics.

“Yeah, and I think that’s got to count for something,” Toews said.

It probably should. But it probably won’t.

The NHL never has been too keen on sending its players to the Olympics. It’s good for growing the game and putting the sport in front of a larger television audience, but it forces the NHL to shut down for three weeks in the middle of its season, and puts its players at risk of injury. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters this week that there have been no new discussions between the NHL, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation, but that there probably will be talks during the World Cup. New IOC leadership has indicated it’s unwilling to continue paying for teams’ travel and insurance, which could be a deal-breaker for the NHL.

So it seems unlikely that the NHL will send its players to Pyeonchang, South Korea, in 2018. And that’s not going to sit well with the league’s biggest stars. Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said during his media-day scrum on Thursday that he’s planning to go to South Korea regardless, which could set up a fascinating showdown between the league and at least one of its biggest stars.

“It’s a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ovechkin said. “But obviously, I said I’m going to play. … I will go there.”

Other players were less adamant, but no less enamored with the idea of the Olympics. While the World Cup satisfies players’ desire for a best-on-best tournament and to represent their countries — well, except for the under-23-year-old Americans and Canadians who have been deemed Team North America; and for the Slovaks, Swiss, Germans, Austrians, Danes, Slovenians, Norwegians and French who have been lumped into Team Europe — it still lacks the history and romance of the Olympics.

“I love the Olympic experience,” Toews said. “You’re part of a bigger team — many different athletes from Canada. I think that’s a special thing, to share that experience with those athletes in the village, and take in all the different sporting events that are going. There’s a sense of pride. This [the World Cup], we’re center stage and it’s all about hockey right now. That, for me, is the primary difference.”

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, of Finland, echoed Toews’ sentiments.

“It’s a totally different feel,” he said. “You don’t really think about being a hockey player. You’re more thinking about being an Olympic teammate at that point.”

While players would love to have both the Olympics and the World Cup — giving them a chance to play internationally every two years — the league hopes the World Cup can replace the Olympics in the players’ eyes.

“Replace?” Team Canada goaltender Corey Crawford said. “I mean, the Olympics has been going on for so long, and there’s that heritage for that tournament. There’s only been a few of these [World Cup] tournaments. But we’re trying to build towards something like that.”

One argument in the NHL’s favor is the fact that Pyeonchang is a whopping 13 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, which limits the exposure factor. During the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the biggest games were on early in the morning back in North America.

“I don’t know anything about the country,” Rask said. “But I think it would be a great thing for hockey to go there and kind of showcase for Asian people, show what hockey’s all about.”

But never mind the financial factors, or the TV factor, or the interruption of the NHL season. Those are owner concerns, not player concerns. For the players, there’s only one thing that matters: They want to play. And it could lead to quite a confrontation down the road.

“The Olympics is a huge stage for our sport,” Toews said. “And I think the best players should be there.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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