TORONTO — Alex Ovechkin did not blink Tuesday, saying he still intends to play in the Olympic Games for Russia next year regardless of the NHL’s announcement that it was pulling the plug.
“Yeah, I didn’t change my mind and I won’t,” the Washington Capitals superstar captain told a huge media scrum after the morning skate at Air Canada Centre.
“Because it’s my country,” Ovechkin added. “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.”
He also remains hopeful, however, that an NHL deal can still be salvaged.
“Yeah, I hope so,” he said. “Again, right now, it’s still time to make a decision; you can say whatever, but next year’s schedule is not out yet. So if the schedule is not going to the Olympic Games, then you can see they don’t bluff. But again, still long time, still everything can change. But in my mind, like I said already, I’m going. It doesn’t matter what.”
Russian and Capitals teammate Evgeni Kuznetsov echoed Ovechkin, saying he, too, plans to go either way, though he said his thoughts at the moment were elsewhere: on Monday’s bomb attacks in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I didn’t really pay attention yesterday about that [Olympic announcement] because there were some tough things in St. Petersburg,” Kuznetsov said. “But it is what it is. I still hope [the NHL] will let us play. But nothing is going to change from my point of view.”
Which is to say, he still intends to go.
“Of course, if Russia needs us, of course,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s from the heart for Russian people. We’ll see though. Maybe they’ll let us go.”
New Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who played for the U.S. in 2014, also isn’t happy with the NHL’s decision.
“It really seemed like kind of a knee-jerk decision by the NHL to just kibosh it,” he said. “I know we really want to go, and I think we deserve to go and the world deserves to see hockey at that level. It’s the highest level of hockey that I’ve ever played at. And it’s great for our game. If we can get over there and the next two Olympics are in that part of the world and grow our game even more, I don’t see why we wouldn’t do it.
“Now it just seems like they want to use it as a bargaining chip. That’s wrong. That’s not what the Olympics is for. The reason we started going was so we could grow the game and show the world how great it is when you get the best players in the world playing against each other. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with the World Cup, but that’s going to take time and this is right in the prime of it. The last Olympics was fantastic, and to just dismiss it, really, without much conversation, is tough.”
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, the leading scored in the NHL, said Tuesday: “It’s disappointing. I think that’s easy to say. Just the opportunity to chase down a spot on Team Canada and be able to represent my country.
“Obviously, the Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world. Not to be able to do that is disappointing but there’s a lot of people higher up making those decisions.”
Mike Babcock, two-time Olympic champion coach for Team Canada, made it clear two weeks ago that he felt the NHL should stay in the Games and reiterated that sentiment Tuesday after the morning skate in Toronto.
“You’ve asked me this a million times, and you know the answers to all this. I made it clear a couple of weeks ago what I thought,” the Maple Leafs coach said. “I told you already that I’m disappointed. I’ve been twice. Greatest event you’ll ever go to in your life.”
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, a shoo-in for Team Canada if the NHL was going, respects what Ovechkin said but doesn’t believe he would be willing to go to South Korea if there were no official deal.
“I have no idea if guys will or not — that’s a personal decision — [but] I wouldn’t be able to go away from my team here,” Holtby said. “I couldn’t do it. That’s just personal. But everyone’s priorities are kind of different. He plays a big role on Team Russia. But as me, I’ve always liked the group that I’ve been with through the year. That’s my No. 1 focus.”
Shattenkirk didn’t commit to either staying or going, but he doesn’t have a problem with a teammate playing.
“I’d tip my caps to those guys for doing it, and I think that’s something that I’m sure will cause trouble with your team, but if that’s your sentiment and that’s how you feel, then absolutely, you should honor that and be proud that you did it,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t hold anything against you.”
American superstar Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs declined to get into the Olympic debate, saying Tuesday morning that his only focus was on that night’s game versus Washington. Caps winger T.J. Oshie, a star at the Winter Games in 2014 for his shootout heroics against Russia, remains hopeful that a deal can be struck.
“You know what? For me, right now, because it’s so fresh, even though we knew this can be a reality, I just for some reason feel we’re going to find a way to resolve it,” Oshie said. “I just can’t imagine us not going. When it comes down to it, I’ll make a decision about that, but as of right now, I’m staying positive, hoping we can figure something out.”
Swedish star Nicklas Backstrom said he was disappointed but was noncommittal when asked whether he’d be willing to go no matter what.
“I don’t know. We’ll see what happens,” the Caps center said.