The National Hockey League stance not participating at the 2018 Winter Olympics is now partially moot after the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the Games.
Headed by Russia captain Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, virtually all of the country’s hockey players held high hopes of traveling to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Now such promises have vanished after IOC officials removed the country from competing because of systematic, state-sponsored use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite the ban by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman – he used the word “unlikely” on the league’s participation – Washington owner Ted Leonsis recently reaffirmed his decision to grant Ovechkin permission to skip three weeks of the Caps’ season to continue his Olympic dream.
It might be the only door-opening for Ovechkin, and fellow current NHLers such as: goalie Semyon Varlamov (Colorado), centers Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), Artem Anisimov (Chicago) and Leo Komarov (Toronto), left wing Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis’ alternate captain), right wing Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), plus more than a dozen skaters slated to try out for Team Russia.
The ban on Russia, an action taken due to the findings of the 30-page Schmid Report, led by the former president of Switzerland Samuel Schmid, will greatly alter wagering on the Olympic men’s hockey tournament.
Besides removing one of the stronger teams from the competition – the probable odds-on favorite without NHL representation – players from Canada and Team USA will be limited.
The North American squads will not only lose NHL players, but those also from the American Hockey League that have two-way contracts, too. In addition, NCAA college players are barred (can only play for one amateur team at a time) and players from junior leagues.
Canada, in anticipation of the Russia ban, had hoped to bring in players from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. But with the home nation effectively barred, the KHL might join the NHL with its own player restrictions to Olympic participation.
So which nations will be the favorites? Probably Sweden, the 1994 Lillehammer and 2006 Turin gold medalist, which hosts its own Elite League (the world’s third-best behind the NHL and KHL), plus Finland (1 silver, 2 bronze in last 3 Games) and Switzerland. Other candidates include Czech Republic, winners of gold at 1998 Nagano.
According to the IIHF rules, the top eight clubs from the 2015 world rankings automatically receive one of 12 tournament berths. With Russia out, No. 9 Belarus could make the field in lieu of a “Russia” team playing under the IOC flag.
Long shots include Slovakia (2002 IIHF world champion), Slovenia, Japan, Germany and host South Korea.