WASHINGTON, April 18 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – With the Sochi Winter Olympics less than a year away, it remains an open question whether the world’s greatest ice hockey players will compete in what will arguably be the centerpiece of the games on the shores of the Black Sea.
The National Hockey League (NHL) has yet to grant permission to its players to take the ice in Sochi amid ongoing negotiations with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) on issues such as player insurance, travel and video rights.
Hockey watchers and insiders believe the sides will ultimately hammer out a deal, but there has been a sense of urgency recently in comments from current and former hockey superstars about the prospect of an Olympic hockey tournament without players from the world’s strongest league.
“We want to play for our country’s national team,” Russian star Evgeni Malkin of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins told RIA Novosti on Thursday. “I think any Canadian or any Russian or any Czech – they all want to play for the national team. And of course the Olympic Games, especially for us Russians in Sochi, are very important.”
Officials from the NHL, the IOC and the IIHF held what NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called a “good working session” last week in New York City, though he did not go into details and could not be reached for comment Thursday.
“The parties are committed to continuing to work through the process, but there remains work to be done on all sides,” Daly said in a statement following the April 12 meeting.
A source with knowledge of the talks told RIA Novosti on Thursday that the sides are negotiating issues related to the players’ travel to the Sochi games, which are set to take place during the NHL season, as well as the rights to video footage from the Olympic hockey tournament and insurance costs for the players.
The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada last week cited Greg Sutton, president of Sutton Special Risk in Toronto, as saying that the cost of insuring the players could reach a minimum of $2 million for a national team loaded with NHL players.
“We never had the situation we have this time, in terms of the number of guys on significant contracts and long-term contracts,” Sutton, whose firm handles insurance matters for many NHL teams, was quoted by The Globe and Mail as saying.
IIHF president Rene Fasel, meanwhile, said the main sticking point involves logistics and accommodating requests from the NHL with regards to guests.
“Logistics is the biggest challenge,” Fasel was quoted by NHL.com as saying last week. “They would like to bring more people than only one guest per player, so we need more rooms, more tickets.”
In the meantime, at least one Russian superstar has been given the green light to compete at Sochi regardless of whether he and his fellow NHL players get a pass from the league.
Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, who was chosen to be one of the torch bearers for the Sochi games, has vowed that he will play for the Russian national team in the Olympics no matter what the NHL decides—a pledge Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he will support.
“I’m going to be honest, I’m going to let him go,” Leonsis told the Washington Post earlier this year. “I just think it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him to have something played in Russia. He’s going to be a torchbearer and it’s very important to him and his family. Who am I to get in the way of him wanting to fulfill that?”
NHL legend Wayne Gretzky said earlier this month that fans in Russia “deserved to see Canada’s best and the United States’ best go and compete at a high level,” the Canadian website Sportsnet reported.
Citing Gretzky’s comments, Russian Hockey Federation chief and former start goalkeeper Vladislav Tretyak told the Russian newspaper RBK daily this week that he is “90 percent certain” the NHL will let its players come to Sochi.
Slava Malamud, the US-based hockey correspondent for the Russian sports daily Sport-Express, told RIA Novosti on Thursday that he also expects the sides to strike a deal. And even if they don’t, not playing for the national team in Sochi is simply “not an option” for Russian stars in the NHL.
“How many times to you get to play in the Olympics in your home country?” Malamud said.