Ilya Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk

Selfish after Sochi: Will the NHL pull the plug on the Olympics, heroes like T.J. Oshie?

The 2014 Winter Games in Russia are likely the last time you'll see the pros in the Olympics. That sucks for fans, but it's good for 30 men.


That was the word that kept popping into my head this morning, as I watched T.J. Oshie slam home four shootout goals (video above), plucking whatever that bird that is on the front of Mother Russia’s flappy Olympic jerseys.


That’s what I thought of this morning, as I watched Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, all those guys who get dogged simply because they were born on the other side, tucked away in a former Cold War enemy’s territory.

Oh no, they don’t wanna play in the NHL anymore? They entertained the idea of fleeing New Jersey or Washington or Detroit for Moscow or St. Petersburg? They flirted with another guy?

Big deal. The rest of us do it every day at our normal, boring, routine jobs. But because we work in office parks with nauseating lighting – and because these guys have the gig we all would love to have, but can’t because we’re either not talented enough or didn’t work hard enough – we don’t think they deserve the freedom we desire.

We don’t love our jobs. They should love theirs. And they get paid millions of dollars? Well, those Russians are just so Russian, aren’t they? And those Czechs? Well, they’re basically Russian. And what about those Canadians who celebrate when they score? Pfft… Russian.

Those Russians… they’re cocky and selfish and they lack loyalty, right? And they’re lazy, too. Isn’t that how we talk about them?

Isn’t that why the NHL is neutering its greatest international showcase, the one tournament that – only every four years – gives the world a glimpse at Earth’s greatest, fastest game?

But it could be over from now on, for all of them.

The Canadians. The Russians. The Swedes, Finns, and Czechs. The Americans.

They’ll all be left out of the party, because there’s a darn good chance — basically a certainty — that this is the last Olympics we’ll see NHLers in the Games. Korea in 2018 will be distinctly different… its hockey tournament won’t be a grab bag of once-in-a-generational talent like it is now.

The NHL is selfish. Its owners are selfish. And they’re stupid.

Because any owner of any franchise – an NHL team is a franchise, by the way – could see that T.J. Oshie just sold as many jerseys as he added Twitter followers. If David Backes wins that gold, too, the Blues’ boys are suddenly Missouri heroes.

In Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and Paul Martin all have a chance to elevate their profiles into a new stratosphere, even if Sid and Geno are there already.

There’s a reason hockey is still – and will for a long time be – fourth fiddle in North America. There’s a reason its stars are nothing next to names like Ronaldo or Messi or Ibrahimovic.

Hockey is small time and it keeps itself that way.

Its owners can’t stand the idea of a three-week recess, because they can’t stand the idea of even one dollar staying on the other side of the door.

The NHL understands its own product about as much as a 20th century entrepreneur would understand Twitter.

The owners refuse to open their vests. They refuse to lose a nickel, even if they could make a dime.

The Olympics are the greatest two weeks of hockey in the world. And all around the United States, franchises tread water in the NHL, living of what they can make while they’re good, dreading the day they might fall off a cliff again. (Even the Chicago Blackhawks were about to being tomahawked before they drafted Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.) The league’s owners extend lockouts and their imported players are expected to spend their very short careers pledging loyalty to a crest they didn’t grow up giving a damn about. But loyalty is unrequited. Like any job, the NHL’s employees make money for their employers. And when they decide to make their own path – go home, like Kovalchuk did, to pursue actual satisfaction, to win for their country and in their country – they’re branded like a bastard.

And the owners win. They have rigged the game, and they don’t want to give it up. They win because they have a monopoly and they’re terrified that the KHL, the European leagues, or the Olympics might whittle it away.

Imagine that, a bunch of capitalists afraid of a little competition. With a short memory, they forget what the game was like before 1998 – before the NHL’s first Olympics – when hockey was a laughing stock, when the game couldn’t sell out an American bar, nevermind Michigan Stadium, or Dodger Stadium, or Yankee Stadium… twice.

And so they beat on, boats against the current. Borne back ceaselessly into the past.

(*This was originally published on White Cover Magazine)