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NEW YORK -- More than four years removed from the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, the battle lines already have been drawn by one of the NHL's biggest stars regarding NHL participation.
Two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin told ESPN.com during an interview here Wednesday that he will risk suspension and play for his country, Russia, regardless of whether the NHL is formally involved or not.
"Nobody can say to me, 'You can't play for your country in the Olympic Games,'" Ovechkin said.
The NHL has no commitment to take part in the Olympics after the 2010 Vancouver Games in February.
The Vancouver Games will mark the fourth time NHL players have participated in the Olympic tournament. The experiment has received mixed reviews, especially from owners, many of whom do not want to see the league shut down for two to three weeks for games that likely will not be televised in prime time (as was the case four years ago during the 2006 Torino Games).
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly said he wants to sit down with the players' union after the Vancouver Games to go over the pros and cons of continued participation. The NHL Players' Association is on record as being staunchly in support of continued participation.
"It's consistent with what we've been hearing from the players, which is that they're very passionate about international hockey, particularly the Olympics," NHLPA interim executive director Ian Penny told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "And it's just a testament to how strongly they feel about it.
"We've heard the players' voice on that issue, and we're going to continue to press ahead, make sure we do participate. So it's really just consistent with what we've been hearing all along."
Ovechkin's pledge to defy his contract and go AWOL if the NHL decides not to take part in future Olympics ups the ante considerably on both sides of the debate.
"I don't care," Ovechkin defiantly said. "I'll go play in the Olympic Games for my country. If somebody says to me, 'You can't play,' see ya."
Even if it meant the Washington Capitals would suspend him?
"I don't care," he said.
Although it appears the Caps would be within their rights to suspend Ovechkin, the issue is a thorny one, given Ovechkin's profile as one of the game's brightest lights and the face of the Washington franchise.
It's possible, for instance, the Caps could give Ovechkin special dispensation to attend the Olympics, although that raises issues of competitive balance. It's possible the NHL could implement a policy that would prevent its teams from freeing up players for that reason.
There also is the real possibility that if Ovechkin follows through on his word to play for Russia, others would follow suit. After the All-Star Game in Montreal this past January, one Russian reporter wrote that Ovechkin, defending NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Atlanta Thrashers star winger Ilya Kovalchuk all pledged to play in the Sochi Games regardless of whether the NHL is formally attending or not.
If that is the case, there would be significant pressure on other Russian players to follow suit, and it's not inconceivable other hockey nations would want their top players to make similar decisions.
Ovechkin said it is likely other Russians would have a similar mindset toward playing on their home soil in 2014.
"Who can say you can't play for your country in the Olympic Games? I think it's ..."
"It's not unfair; it's stupid," he said. "Somebody don't like it, see you next year."