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Olympic decision could lead to more labor strife for NHL

Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby pose with their gold medals in Sochi in 2014. (Getty Images)

DENVER — If indeed the Olympics are played in South Korea next year without Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and all the other best players in the world, it’ll be a blow for the sport of hockey. But look beyond February 2018 and ahead to September 2019, when both the NHL and NHL Players’ Association can opt out of the current collective-bargaining agreement, and it’s not hard to see where the league is headed again.

The NHL’s abrupt decision Monday to pull out of the Olympics — and the way the league handled the issue over the last year or two — has both sides hurtling toward another potential lockout.

“I just didn’t believe it was going to happen [in 2012],” said Toews, a two-time gold medalist. “I thought everyone has the best interests [of] the game of hockey [at heart] and obviously the ultimate respect for the fans. I didn’t think we would go through that, and we didn’t play till January. So I wouldn’t be surprised. If we’re already hitting some road bumps with something like [the Olympics], we’re heading in the same direction. Can’t say anyone should be surprised at this point.”

The NHL said that it considers the Olympics matter “closed.” But players throughout the league said Tuesday that they’re hoping it’s just a bit of posturing by the NHL, that with 10 months until the Pyeongchang Games, there’s still time to salvage it. The 2017-18 schedule won’t be released until June, and the league didn’t make its 2014 Olympic participation official until mid-July 2013.

Just about every player used some variant of the word “disappointed” when discussing the decision, but there’s a lingering resentment toward how the NHL handled the entire process. In December, the league floated a proposal in which it would agree to send players to the Olympics in exchange for extending the current CBA to 2025. The players, who came out on the short end of the 2012-13 lockout, rejected it.

“You have to respect your employers, your owner’s decision,” Toews said. “It just seems unfortunate that the players voice that it’s something that they think is beneficial not only for them, but for the league and for our game as a whole, and it automatically turns into a negotiation. It just seems like it comes down to what they can get out of us when the next CBA negotiation rolls around. It’s not about the long-term goals of our game and growing it and the bigger picture. I disagree with the short-sightedness of this whole thing, too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that players can get that cooperation from the league. Tough bounce.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly stated that there is no tangible benefit to the league shutting down its season for more than two weeks in February — a time when football is over and baseball hasn’t started — and there’s obviously a huge risk of losing a player to injury in international play. During the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Islanders captain John Tavares and Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg suffered season-ending injuries.

“It’s 17 days of the season you’ve got to shut down,” owner Rocky Wirtz said last month. “I really don’t have an opinion on it, but it’s a tough time of the year. I’d love to see if they could do it in the summer when it doesn’t disrupt the season. Obviously, the players like it because very few of them actually go, and they get 17 days off. I think it’s not really fair for the fans, but I’ll let the league decide.”

But the players insist the benefit to the league and to the game is real. Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog talked about how his high school shut down during Sweden’s Olympic games in 2006, with the entire school watching the game in the cafeteria. Matt Duchene said Sidney Crosby’s golden goal against the United States in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was one of his biggest moments as a hockey fan. And Kane pointed out that the league is holding two preseason games in China in the fall, and that the Olympics are another chance to give the game a toehold in the massive Asian market.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to grow the game,” Kane said.

Washington’s Alex Ovechkin told reporters on Tuesday that he’s going to South Korea to play for Russia no matter what the repercussions are (Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’d support Ovechkin in that instance) and other players, including Landeskog, dropped hints that they might consider their options. Toews and Kane made it clear they would respect the decision of Wirtz and the other owners, whether they’re happy about it or not. But if the decision holds, it could make for some compelling drama next winter — and then again in the fall of 2019.

“It’s a tough position as a player,” said Duncan Keith, who has won two gold medals with Canada. “You want to be respectful of the team and your owner who pays you the money, but you also want to be patriotic every chance you can, and play for your country. It’s a tough decision.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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