Monday, March 5, 2012
Yzerman on board for Sochi, but is NHL?
By Pierre LeBrun
My first thought after Hockey Canada announced Steve Yzerman was returning to run the 2014 Canadian Olympic hockey team?
What his wife said to him after he told her he wanted to do this again. Which likely went along the lines of, “Are you freakin’ crazy?”
“Initially after Vancouver it was like, `You’re not going to do that again, are you?,”’ Yzerman said Monday on a media call.
“As we get closer to this, though, and we starting talking about it and start thinking about it, we all want to be involved,” he added.
Having had the chance to chat with Yzerman on a number of occasions in the lead-up to Vancouver 2010, not to mention cover the Olympics that year and see the stress in his face on a daily basis, I have to wonder if that kind of torture, the weight of a hockey-crazed nation on your shoulders, is really worth it.
But of course it is and then some.
Like Wayne Gretzky before him, Yzerman couldn’t resist back-to-back Olympic assignments as Team Canada executive director, because the thrill of running that squad in the greatest tournament in the world is just too good to turn down.
“First of all, it’s a lot of fun,” said Yzerman. “The fact that it is in Russia and that we’re the defending gold medalists, it’s too good of an opportunity to pass up on.”
“The right guy for the job, great choice,” Gretzky told ESPN.com via text about the Yzerman announcement.
The question is, will the NHL players be there?
Know this, it’s no coincidence at all that Hockey Canada was brazen enough to announce Yzerman and the rest of his Olympic management staff (which includes the likes of Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Amstrong) despite not knowing whether the NHL will send its players.
This is a bit of a power play. Hockey Canada, just like all the national federations, wants the best players in the world to be there. Just like all hockey fans do, too. Announcing Yzerman before anything is even close to being decided on that front adds a little pressure on the NHL to commit for a fifth straight Olympics. For the players, it’s a no-brainer. They want back in.
The league and owners are wary of Olympic participation, and on some level are absolutely correct in feeling that way given how the International Olympic Committee treats the league. How is it even possible that the NHL Network couldn’t show game highlights of Vancouver 2010 during the tournament when it’s the NHL and NHLPA supplying to product? That’s just one of several issues that irritate the league.
A senior league official told ESPN.com on Monday that there was absolutely nothing new to report on the Olympic front. The fact remains that Olympic participation will need to be ironed out with the players in collective bargaining, not to mention agreements reached with the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation.
In the end, even if it’s with feet dragging, I believe the NHL will ultimately end up in Sochi. But it’s far from a sure thing.
I asked Yzerman on the media call Monday whether his role as Team Canada executive director hinges on having NHL players in Sochi.
“If the NHL players in fact aren’t involved, we’ll figure out a solution,” said Yzerman. “We don’t know if NHL players aren’t involved just what player will be involved, even who qualifies or if there’s age limits or whatnot like in [Olympic soccer]. We’ll figure out a Plan B when we find that out.”
As a follow-up, I asked Yzerman whether it was possible he’d be involved even with no NHL players in Sochi?
“It’s possible. We’ll be involved in some form or another,” said Yzerman.
If the NHLers are in Sochi, Yzerman once again will have incredibly difficult choices to make with his roster, as Canada always does with its depth. The Olympic champs could have quite the turnover. Imagine that the likes of Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, John Tavares, James Neal, Logan Couture, Jamie Benn and Alex Pietrangelo were not in Vancouver two years ago.
“There will be some change,” said Yzerman. “Scott Niedermayer is retired. I’m not sure who else will be back. This is two years away. You’ll see a lot of change. We don’t have to make any determination now, but some of these young guys are getting better and better and they will be on that team.”
And every decision will be closely scrutinized by a 35 million hockey fanatics. Yzerman would have it no other way.