Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead to Sochi-2014

Thanks to Slava Malamud for this article on an overlooked bit of sensational news during the All-Star Game.

1/28/2009 Slava Malamud

1/28/2009 Slava Malamud

MALKIN, OVECHKIN AND KOVALCHUK AGREE TO GO TO SOCHI IN 2014 DESPITE THE PROHIBITION

Slava Malamud             Montreal

It is difficult to imagine a better advertisement for Russian Hockey that the recently concluded NHL All-Star game in Montreal. Practically all of the greatest moments at the traditional celebratory event were provided by our players: the long-awaited reconciliation between Ovechkin and Malkin under the sensitive guidance of Kovalchuk; the comical performance of both during the skills competition; and Alex Kovalev’s performance in the All-Star game itself, for which he was selected MVP. We could hardly write a better scenario if we tried.

There was only one episode during this holiday that made a bad impression, and it was barely noticed by the locals.  During a press conference devoted to a session of the league’s board of directors, Gary Bettman was more than skeptical in describing the prospect of NHL players participating in the Sochi Olympic Games. I would even say that the lips of the politically correct commissioner sounded out something equivalent to a burning desire to battle, with all his strength, the Olympic ambitions of the players.  In any case, there is no doubt that Gary himself is unambiguously against this. So, without batting an eyelid, Bettman delivered a gut punch to the country which gave him his biggest stars of the weekend.

You can somewhat understand Bettman. He and the club owners (whose interests he represents) have their own objective financial reasons. These reasons are infinitely removed from politics and national pride, for otherwise the commissioner wouldn’t deprive Canada and the US of a realistic chance to win a gold medal. The North Americans won’t even be able to send their farm-club teams but rather juniors and students. So what do the Russian stars, especially those who will be at the peak of their careers in 2014, think of this?

Right after the All-Star game I asked them about this. I first asked Ilya Kovalchuk and he responded thusly:

“It is absurd” commented Kovalchuk on Bettman’s statement. “It is simply that they can’t sign an agreement between the KHL and the NHL so they just butt heads against each other. But I think that they will find some smart people who can resolve this matter. The Olympic Games are history in the making, and everyone desires most of all to play for their own country.”

For you, Malkin, and Ovechkin, there is a unique opportunity that might not repeat itself-the possibility to play in the Olympics in your own country. Suppose that the NHL nonetheless doesn’t go to Sochi. What is your reaction to that?

“We’d go on strike (laughing)… Well, what can I say here? This really doesn’t depend on us. We are just players. But I have hope, and I think that any audience that has won the right to host the Olympics should see the best athletes, not just whoever was able to attend.”

Kovalchuk quickly turned his blurted words about a strike into a joke, but do they really sound so surprising? Can you imagine what it means for an athlete to be excommunicated from such a large scale dream-not only from the Olympics, but from the Olympics in your own homeland? Who among us could guarantee that a contract, professional obligations and other such examples of cold logic would prevail under such a situation?

After a few minutes Evgeni Malkin came out of the locker room and dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the “t’s”.

“100%, I am going to Sochi” Evgeni says plainly.

Even if the NHL doesn’t allow participation in the Games?

“Yes, I will go. Because for me, this is the most important competition.”

So you will go AWOL?

“Yes. And I am sure that Ovechkin and Kovalchuk will do the same.”

Are you going to push them into doing this?

“We’ve already talked about this subject. And why should I need to push them? It might be that they did the pushing.”

So what, have you already come to an agreement on this amongst yourselves?

“Not so much that we have come to an agreement, but that we agree that the Olympics is the most important thing, especially since it will be in our homeland. And that we should participate in it.”

After a few minutes, just to ease my conscience, I quoted these words to Ovechkin and asked if he was truly ready to go counter to the NHL and willfully go to Sochi. The usually talkative and cheerful Alexander answered quite laconically and quite seriously:

“Yes.”

Well, we can applaud the impulse of young men, and for Bettman we hope that this will be food for thought. On the one hand, what Kovalchuk, Malkin and Ovechkin intend to do is unprecedented, and it is certain that the commissioner will not immediately believe it. Ovechkin, with his $124 million dollar contract (which he very diligently and scrupulously insured before going to the World Championship in Quebec) — would Ovechkin just take it and then spit on his NHL career, which promises to be a great one?

But on the other hand, why not? What can the commissioner do to the Russia troika? Disqualify for life the three brightest forwards in the league? Deprive the NHL of a 28 year old (at that time) Ovechkin, who will still have many years of madness and genius in reserve? Or Malkin, who at 28 years old may fully justify comparison with Lemieux? Or Kovalchuk, whose sniper shots and charm will not be any less when he is 31? Besides a loss of salary for the term of absence and some type of hearing before the union, what else could Bettman realistically impose on the rebels? Especially if their example inspires others. I don’t think that Gary is himself a foe to that degree. And I think that our millionaires would spit on a loss of two weeks’ pay. It is too insignificant of a price to pay for the right to play in a once-in-your-lifetime home Olympic Games.

So, it occurs to me that these words of Kovalchuk, Malkin and Ovechkin have been spoken especially for the commissioner in the hope that he will listen and think a little bit more. About, for example, whether he needs a fully understandable, but no less merciless Russian revolution in his old age.

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