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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Ivey: Olympic ban could push players out of NHL

On Tuesday morning, TSN hockey reporter Darren Dreger reported that two NHL restricted free agents — Sam Bennett of the Calgary Flames and Andreas Athanasiou of the Detroit Red Wings — could decide to play this upcoming season in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) instead of the NHL due to contract disputes with their teams.

We have been seeing that a lot this summer, as players like Lars Johansson, Mikhail Grigorenko, Roman Lyubimov and Nikita Nesterov have decided to play in Russia instead of re-signing with their NHL team or a different NHL team.

But the news of Bennett and Anthanasiou possibly leaving to play overseas was surprising. Both are considered young, promising players for their respective teams. Bennett was the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft and was considered a possible cornerstone player for the Flames for years to come.

So why would these guys possibly decide to play in a foreign country?

The Olympics are a big reason.

Back in April, the NHL confirmed that it will not allow their players to participate in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, marking the first time since the 1994 Winter Olympics that the NHL won’t allow their players to participate in the games. This news was met with negative reactions from fans and many NHL players.

Only amateur players, players currently playing in European leagues — like the KHL — and minor league players who don’t have an NHL contract will be allowed to play hockey in the upcoming Olympics.

Former NHL player Ilya Kovalchuk, who is currently playing in the KHL, said in an interview back in July that one of the main factors why he elected to stay in the KHL was the upcoming Olympic Games.

The move makes sense for a number of reasons.

For these players, representing their country in the Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity. They view playing a year in a European league as a small price to pay for getting an opportunity to play in a setting like the Olympics.

Given that the rosters for Olympic teams in the upcoming games won’t be riddled with NHL all-stars, their chances of making their respective country’s team has never been higher. They feel like they have a good chance given their previous NHL experience.

The same goes for Bennett and Anthanasiou, who would most likely play for the two-time defending gold medal winning Canadian Olympic team if they do decide to play overseas this year.

What will be interesting to see is how many other NHL players will follow their lead and play overseas this season in pursuit of Olympic glory. Veteran NHL players like Jarome Iginla and Jaromir Jagr have still not been signed by an NHL team. Will they decide to make the jump overseas for one last shot at Olympic gold?

What about NHL players currently signed to NHL contracts? Many have said they would still wish to play in the Olympics even though the league ruled against it. Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin said he will play for his home country of Russia in the Olympics even if the NHL ruled against it. When the NHL did rule against it in April, Ovechkin said he still planned on playing in the Olympics no matter what.

“Yeah, I didn’t change my mind and I won’t,” Ovechkin said. “Because it’s my country. I think everybody wants to play there. It’s the biggest opportunity in your life to play in the Olympic Games. So, I don’t know, somebody is going to tell me ‘don’t go,’ I don’t care, I just go.”

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has publicly stated that he will support Ovechkin’s decision to play in the Olympics against the NHL’s wishes.

It will be interesting to see if any other NHL superstars follow Ovechkin’s lead.

Whatever the case, the NHL’s decision not to participate in the Olympics will have a ripple effect on team rosters around the league this year.