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NHL players covet Olympic participation despite league’s view

If the NHL decides against going to the 2018 Olympics, it might have to deal with players like Russian star Alex Ovechkin attending anyway.

Mark Humphrey/The Canadian Press

Alex Ovechkin has pledged to attend the 2018 Olympics in South Korea whether the NHL opts to go or not, and the Russian superstar might not be alone.

Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, said the possibility of players choosing to compete in Pyeongchang even if the NHL decides against interrupting the 2017-18 season "would be the next issue which arises."

"I'm not sure we take the view that that's a league decision anyway," Fehr said by phone on Thursday afternoon. "It's very probably an individual club decision."

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The NHL declined to comment on the matter when reached Thursday, but it's not difficult to envision the headache it would cause for the league if players, beyond just Ovechkin, opted to attend next February while the NHL regular season continued to take place. The distraction alone would be enormous.

Both Fehr and the players don't want it to get to that point though. They're hoping for a resolution from the NHL which allows the group to attend a sixth consecutive Games.

"They know we think it's important," Fehr said. "They know that we believe very strongly that players ought to have an opportunity to play. They know we think it's in the long-run good for the game. And it's something that we ought to try and do."

Owners have groused about the subject for months, however, unconvinced of the tangible benefits of attending in South Korea and concerned about the effects of a regular season shutdown for two-plus weeks. Their earliest apparent stumbling block was money that the International Olympic Committee was insisting against paying to cover player costs. The International Ice Hockey Federation said it has remedied those concerns, while the NHL has been skeptical.

The league also wasn't keen on IOC rules preventing promotion of its presence at the Olympics, including the airing of highlights.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said this week that the assumption should be that the league isn't going, while commissioner Bill Daly said in late January that a game-changer of some kind was required.

"I don't know what the something is," Daly said. "All I can tell you is if we're going to hear the same thing I don't think it's going to move the ball."

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No formal discussions have taken place between the league, PA, IOC and IIHF since an early February meeting in New York. No further talks were scheduled.

Back on the first day of 2017 Fehr said he was "more optimistic now than I ever have been", but that same level of optimism wasn't apparent at this stage in late March. He argued for the "pretty universal" desire among players to represent their countries on the career-defining stage of the Olympics and thought it unwise to pass up two potential opportunities in Asia – Beijing follows in 2022 – during a five-year period.

"There's a patriotic element, too ... And to take that opportunity away would be most, most unfortunate," Fehr said. "It means a lot. And it means a lot to players not only during their careers to say 'I played on an Olympic team', but after their career and for the rest of their lives when they're back in their home countries."

"I think the players know it's very important for us to represent our countries," Ovechkin told reporters in Washington on Thursday. "Everybody wants to go there."

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid expressed similar sentiment at the all-star game. The 20-year-old said he couldn't envision an Olympics without NHL players.

"There's a lot of people higher up than me that are going to be figuring that one out, but 100 per cent they should go," McDavid said.

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Fehr hoped the NHL decided to go before the decision was made by others, namely the IIHF, which has expressed increasing urgency for a resolution. IIHF president Rene Fasel told The Associated Press on Thursday that he needs to know the NHL's decision on Pyeongchang by the end of April, but Fehr suggested there was no definitive drop-dead date.

"That's at least weeks away, whether it's six weeks or 10 weeks or whatever it's at least weeks away," Fehr said. "I'm hopeful we don't have to get to that point."

If it does get to that point, Fehr knows how players would react if 2018 was off the table.

"They're going to be unhappy," Fehr said. "That's about all I can say, but that should be obvious."

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