Olympic decision could lead to more labor strife for NHL

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DENVER — If indeed the Olympics are played in South Korea next year without the likes of 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 of 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 NHL is headed.

Again.

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

“I just didn’t believe it was going to happen [in 2012],” two-time gold medalist Jonathan Toews said. “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 Monday 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 league, that with 10 months until the Pyeongchang games, there’s still time to salvage it. 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 this. Back in December, the league floated a proposal in which the league 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 side 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 can they 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. But the players insist the benefit 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 Patrick 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 said he’s going to South Korea to play for Russia no matter what the repercussions are, and other players, including Landeskog, have dropped hints that they might consider their options. Toews and Kane made it clear they would respect the decision of Rocky 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.”

NOTES: Niklas Hjalmarsson is home tending to a family matter and isn’t on the trip. Scott Darling will start in goal against Colorado.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus


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