SAN JOSE – The start of the 2014 Winter Olympics is less than a year away, and it’s possible that this time next February, several San Jose Sharks will be wearing the colors of their respective countries for a fortnight in Sochi, Russia.
Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have already been mentioned as possibilities for Team Canada. Joe Pavelski is a virtual lock to return for Team USA. Marty Havlat is a strong possibility for the Czech Team, after playing in Vancouver four years ago. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle, who all won gold in 2010 for Canada, could also be considered.
Olympic participation has always been important to NHL players, since the first time it happened in 1998. Ask some of the guys in the Sharks’ locker room about it, and it becomes clear that hasn’t changed.
“It’s absolutely a no-brainer that we should be playing in the Olympics,” Vlasic said.
Pavelski said: “It’s one of those stages that as an athlete you want to get to, if possible. It’s definitely pretty cool. I was happy I was able to experience it, and you definitely want to get another crack at it if you can.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and other league big wigs recently met with representatives from the NHLPA, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee. It’s likely something will be finalized shortly.
"I think it is fair to say that if this can be worked out to everybody's satisfaction, we'd all like to have NHL players at the Olympics," Bettman told NHL.com on Friday. "To go through chronicling issue by issue isn't going to serve anybody's purpose and probably isn't all that interesting. I think, most importantly, hockey fans that like and love the Olympics would like to see us get this done, and that's what we're going to be focused on."
Although they are in the middle of the season, several Sharks have already thought about potential Olympic participation, some as returning players and some for the first time. Among the first-timers, Couture, an NHL All-Star in 2012, has the best chance of making his Team Canada debut.
It would a debut on a number of levels, as the goal-scoring center was passed up for the World Juniors, including in 2009 when it was held in nearby Ottawa. That's stuck with him for years.
“I’ve been left out before, so hopefully I can do what I can to change that,” Couture said. “It would mean a lot to throw a Canadian jersey on, and on the biggest stage, that would be pretty cool.”
Vlasic is more of a long shot, although the sturdy defenseman’s reputation has steadily grown since he broke into the league in 2006-07. Depending on how he plays in the coming months, Vlasic could conceivably be considered for a spot on Canada’s blue line.
“It would be an honor to play for your country, and yeah, it’s in my mind,” Vlasic said. “It’s something that is a personal objective, and one that if I work hard enough I should be able to prove that I do belong eventually on one of those teams.”
Pavelski had three assists in six games with Team USA, in its silver medal performance in Vancouver.
“Obviously it’s on your mind, and we don’t know yet as players if we’re going or not,” he said. “It feels like we will be, which is great. I think every player wants to go if they get the chance.”
Not everyone thinks that NHL players should participate, though. Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates recently told the Washington Post: “My honest answer is no. 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.”
The issue is much more complicated than in 2010 in Vancouver, as the games will be on the other side of the World and the start times will likely not be ideal for watching live in North America. Combine that with shutting down the league during the stretch run and the threat of injuries to star players, and there’s a strong case to be made for players to skip the games.
Boyle said it’s still worth it to go, though.
“I think it was pretty convenient last time around, in North America. Guys didn’t have to go too far or have to change their sleeping schedule and all that. But, I think it’s good for the sport,” he said. “Obviously, the time change will be a little bit of a challenge for TV viewing and stuff like that so it’s not ideal, but I think it’s good for the sport to have international competition every four years.”
Vlasic was in Lake Tahoe during the games in 2010, and recalled the fan excitement for hockey around town. He said, “Everyone was craving the Olympics, especially the US-Canada [gold medal] game.”
“It’s almost bigger than the NHL. It’s not that this isn’t big, but for your whole country…it’s huge to represent your country,” Vlasic said.
Couture said: “Speaking to guys that played in the last Olympics, they loved it and had a great time, and enjoyed themselves. As a proud Canadian, you want to represent your country and help your country out as best you can.”