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How the NHL can prevent players from going to Olympics

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One day after the National Hockey League announced it will not participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, the Washington Capitals star doubled down and reaffirmed his commitment to play for his country next February – with or without league approval.

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“I didn’t change my mind, and I won’t,” Ovechkin told reporters in Toronto. “It’s my country. You know, I think everyone wants to play there. It’s the biggest opportunity in your life to play in the Olympic Games. So, I don’t know. Somebody going to tell me, ‘Don’t go,’ I don’t care. I just go.”

Ovechkin’s handshake agreement with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is the quagmire that could threaten to throw the NHL into chaos next February.

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“If Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby and Nick Backstrom tell us, ‘We want to go play for our country,’ how am I going to say no?” Leonsis told in February. “I might get fined. I might get punished in some way. But I feel I’m in partnership with Nick and Braden and Alex.”

Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov told reporters on Tuesday he also intends to play for Russia. Holtby, Backstrom and T.J. Oshie were less committal.

“Of course,” Kuznetsov said. “If Russia needs us, of course. You know, it’s in the heart for Russian people.”

The expectation is that the NHL will step in to stop all potential individual player participation in the 2018 Olympics.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sent a memo to all 31 clubs on Monday instructing team officials to not comment on potential individual participation, saying that the league will rule on the subject.

You can rest assured that a team of lawyers on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan is already working on that policy, with the goal of quelling the chatter of a revolt sooner rather than later.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly admitted on March 17 – more than weeks before Monday’s announcement ¬– that the league was already contemplating how to combat a free-for-all.

“We’ve started giving some to thought to that. It’s certainly not an issue that we have to resolve today,” Daly told the Ottawa Sun. “I would be surprised if we allowed it to be club-by-club issue at this point. I think there will be a league response.”

Daly declined to comment further about the league’s response on Tuesday.

So, what can the NHL do to curb individual players from leaving their club?

One option would be to issue a rule stating that any player who leaves his club next February to play in the Olympics will be banned from playing for his team for the remainder of the season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The belief is any such unilateral order would quickly be grieved by the NHL Players’ Association, who would likely feel that stiff a penalty and change to the rules would need to be bargained.


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