Olympic dreams still live e

Ovechkin, Stamkos want in; NHL works to­ward Sochi ap­proval

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY KATIE CAR­RERA car­rerak@wash­post.com

For play­ers like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, the Games re­main a big deal.

Washington Cap­i­tals star winger Alex Ovechkin grew up dream­ing of the chance to win gold medals for Rus­sia in the Olympics. There was no event that cap­tured the at­ten­tion of his home coun­try more than the Sum­mer or Win­ter Games and no higher honor than be­ing one of the se­lect few cho­sen to rep­re­sent it.

“It was very im­por­tant, all me­dia, all [at­ten­tion is on the] Olympics,” said Ovechkin, whose mother won two Olympic gold medals in bas­ket­ball for the Soviet Union. “I re­mem­ber, I was lit­tle kid in my coun­try home far from Moscow — lit­tle kids, we watched the Olympics. . . . Ev­ery­body is in­volved.”

Of­fi­cials from the NHL, hockey’s in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body and the Olympics met this past week to dis­cuss al­low­ing NHL play­ers to par­tic­i­pate in the 2014 Win­ter Games in Sochi, Rus­sia, but no agree­ment has been reached. Re­gard­less, Ovechkin has played in the past two Olympics and in­tends to do so again — with the sup­port of Cap­i­tals owner Ted Leon­sis — when they be­gin in 51 weeks.

While Ovechkin and other Rus­sian play­ers feel par­tic­u­larly passionate about the is­sue given the lo­ca­tion of the event, they’re far from the only ones ar­gu­ing for NHL play­ers’ par­tic­i­pa­tion. Tampa Bay Light­ning cen­ter Steven Stamkos has long waited for the day he could rep­re­sent Canada in the Olympics and he doesn’t be­lieve NHL play­ers should be pro­hib­ited from tak­ing part, es­pe­cially since they have skated in the past four Win­ter Games.

“I think you should be able to, no ques­tion,” Stamkos said this past week. “I don’t think any­one should be able to take that right away from you. Rep­re­sent­ing your coun­try, it’s above ev­ery­thing else. I per­son­ally think guys will be able go over there and rep­re­sent their coun­tries and play, I know some guys would prob­a­bly go over there any­ways even if they couldn’t.”

Two days of talks that con­cluded Fri­day were pro­duc­tive, ac­cord­ing to NHL Deputy Com­mis­sioner Bill Daly, who along with Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman met with In­ter­na­tional Ice Hockey Fed­er­a­tion Pres­i­dent Rene Fasel and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee.

“We hope to be able to pur­sue those dis­cus­sions on a more de­tailed level over the next sev­eral weeks to see if we can all get to a com­fort­able place,” Daly wrote in an e-mail, adding that there is no firm dead­line for a deal to be struck. “Tim­ing is im­por­tant and we all agree that a de­ci­sion on NHL par­tic­i­pa­tion has to be made in the rel­a­tive short term.”

The NHL is seek­ing video, pho­to­graph and Web site rights and greater over­all involvement in the tour­na­ment. In ad­di­tion, there is a long­stand­ing de­bate over whether the world­wide ex­po­sure given to the sport is worth the league shut­ting down for two weeks and the risks to the health of its elite play­ers.

Hall of Famer Steve Yz­er­man, gen­eral man­ager of the Tampa Bay Light­ning and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Canada’s men’s hockey team for 2014, was adamant that the Olympics of­fer an un­par­al­leled venue for the NHL to grow in­ter­est in the sport.

“It’s the big­gest stage in the world for us to mar­ket our play­ers,” Yz­er­man said. “The Olympics is the one time the whole world is watch­ing and I be­lieve we want our play­ers there be­cause we have the best play­ers in the world. . . . It’s only good for our game.”

Not ev­ery­one agrees. Cap­i­tals Coach Adam Oates cited in­jury con­cerns as one of the rea­sons why he doesn’t want NHL play­ers to take part in the Olympics, even though he un­der­stands the pro­mo­tional ben­e­fits.

“You know what, I don’t. I don’t. My hon­est an­swer is no,” Oates said of whether he wants NHL play­ers in the Olympics. “Is it good for hockey that they do it? Great. But I grew up try­ing to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, not Team Canada. Didn’t even know it ex­isted.”

As a Hall of Fame player, Oates opted never to rep­re­sent Team Canada de­spite in­vi­ta­tions to do so be­cause he pri­or­i­tized his NHL ca­reer above in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. But this gen­er­a­tion of play­ers might view Olympic par­tic­i­pa­tion dif­fer­ently.

Dur­ing the bulk of Oates’s play­ing ca­reer, the Olympics were an ama­teur tour­na­ment. The NHL has sent its play­ers to ev­ery Win­ter Games since 1998 in Nagano, Ja­pan, though, and cur­rent play­ers came of age watch­ing pro­fes­sion­als not only com­pete for the Stan­ley Cup but for gold medals as well.

Stamkos re­called watch­ing Canada win gold at Salt Lake City as a 13-year-old in 2002 and has long en­vi­sioned his op­por­tu­nity to rep­re­sent his home­land on the world’s grand­est stage.

“As a Cana­dian kid, if you don’t think about that, some­thing’s wrong with you,” said Stamkos, 23. “Any time you get a chance to rep­re­sent your coun­try at any stage is some­thing you dream of as a kid.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

“I re­mem­ber, I was lit­tle kid in my coun­try home far from Moscow — lit­tle kids, we watched the Olympics,” said Caps star Alex Ovechkin.

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