DETROIT – If anyone sees both sides of the debate over NHL players taking part in the Winter Olympics it is Red Wings associate coach Tom Renney.
The last Canadians coach to lead a men’s ice hockey team completely comprised of amateurs to the Olympics, Renney understands both sides of the argument.
“It is a tough one, it’s a really tough one,” Renney said. “I think if I’m an owner and a general manager in this league I’m real skeptical of whether or not our guys should participate in this quite honestly. If I’m a player, I wanna go. Having been there I can relate to that.”
Players, coaches and owners know the injury risk involved in a short tournament with so much national pride at stake. Injuries are no different in the NHL regular season or the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the obvious exception: NHL owners pay the players’ salaries.
Already this month, a handful of NHL stars have been injured in Sochi, and several will likely miss significant time when the North American season resumes next week. Some injuries could adversely affect teams’ playoff chances.
A side from Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who pulled out of the Olympics after Sweden’s Sochi opener with a pre-existing condition, the New York Islanders lost John Tavares (MCL) for the season, and the New York Rangers could be without forward Mats Zuccarello (hand) for some time. The Florida Panthers send two players to Sochi – forwards Aleksander Barkov (knee) and Tomas Kopecky (head) – and both will return hurt.
It’s been 20 years since the International Olympic Committee lifted the amateur provision that prohibited professionals from playing in the men’s tournament, thus, allowing NHL players to compete against countries that traditionally loaded rosters with “pros” for the purpose of winning gold at international tourneys.
“Maybe the time has come through the progression of – in Canada the Program of Excellence, in the United States the National Development Program – that (it) becomes an under-23 event,” Renney said. “You reengage the World Cup and have that on the quadrennial and let the young great players in our game, if that’s where they are, play at the under-23 level if you will and it still becomes an exciting and outstanding event.”
The NHL and the players’ association haven’t committed to continuing its Olympic participation for four years from now in South Korea. Commissioner Gary Bettman has been quoted as saying that the league and its players will make a decision in the next six months.
Some have suggested that hockey should be moved to the Summer Games, where it would solve the owners’ angst while still allowing the players to represent their countries in the Olympics.
Sound funny or to far-fetched to believe?
Hockey at the Olympics was first played in the summer at the Antwerp (Belguim) Games in 1920, but Renney isn’t a fan of such an arrangement.
“It just doesn’t seem right to play hockey in the middle of the summer, especially when you’re trying to convince hockey leaders, the parents that it’s not such a bad idea to grab the soccer ball or the football, you know, maybe give hockey a rest,” he said. “It’s a great sport and the greatest sport we play in my mind but there is an opportunity to do other things for young people and if you hold an event like that in the middle of summer it’s kind of an oxymoron.”
Based on his experience at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Renney would have no problem with cheering on amateur players should the NHL chose not to send players to South Korea in 2018.
“We were picked to finish seventh or eighth or something like that and we ended up playing the last game of the tournament and losing a heartbreaker in a shootout,” Renney said. “It was really good and it doesn’t matter who’s wearing the jerseys for these countries, it’s certainly a proud moment for every one of them and the guys that get the nod again should be awfully proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish on behalf of their countries and certainly with their teammates as well. It’s a special time and it’s a time I’ll never forget.”
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