“Oh, it means everything.”
In 2013, when Steven Stamkos was asked what it meant to play for Team Canada at an Olympics, that was his answer. Now, with the NHL’s participation in the 2018 Winter Games in jeopardy, he may never get the chance to represent his country in the biggest international tournament played on ice.
On Monday the NHL declared the matter “officially closed” in a press release. Of course, since it is the NHL, closed doesn’t mean closed and locked. They are willing to listen to other parties involved (NHLPA, IOC, etc) if they can come up with ideas (cough, money, cough) on how to make it easier on the owners to allow the players to go to PyeongChang.
The owners and the league do have legitimate gripes about Olympic participation, but how they are handling it isn’t exactly endearing them to the players. Then again, when have they ever done that? The players are now stuck in an uncomfortable position of not getting a chance to play for their country or risking alienating their owners and a small portion of their fan base by jumping ship in the middle of the season to play halfway across the world.
Which brings us to Stamkos. When asked about it on Tuesday he called it “disappointing.” He also referred to it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and, perhaps his most revealing line, “From what I’ve heard, it’s an unbelievable experience.”
The beginning of the sentence is almost heartbreakingly wistful. After all, he should be an Olympic veteran by now. Since he’s entered the league, there have been two Winter Olympics and circumstances have kept him from participating in both.
For the 2010 games in Vancouver, he was selected as a reserve member and didn’t seem overly upset about the omission as he trotted out the “it’s an honor to just be considered” statement to The Toronto Star:
"It was an honour in itself just hearing your name swirl around in there. At the end of the day, it didn't catch me off-guard, I wasn't really surprised with the decision. There are so many great players who have had past experience. I think obviously my age factored in there. But I think I played well enough to get in the mix, but not well enough to get on the team. I think you have to do something special, especially at the age I'm at, to really get . . . consideration for that team. Like I said, it's tough, but not the end of the world. Now you've got to prove to them that they made a mistake I guess, if you want to put it that way.”
From a Lightning fan perspective the Vancouver games were about Marty St. Louis getting snubbed, not Stamkos. The young Tampa Bay Lightning center was only 19 years old and had a very robust future in front of him. The Sochi games in 2014 would be just the right time for him. There was no way Stamkos, in his goal-scoring prime, would be left off that roster right? Well, yeah, about that.
Still, he was a shoe-in for the 2018 games in PyeongChang. Some of the veterans who had led the previous teams to glory would be aging out, and Stamkos could slide in as a center or a wing with no fuss. Imagine Connor McDavid feeding him one-timers? Oh those poor European goaltenders! He could finally get his gold medal and leave with something other than a nifty jacket.
If the NHL goes through with its plan and doesn’t let players go, then it’s another four years until Stamkos gets another chance. A lot can happen in four years. He’ll be 32 years old in 2022. He won’t be quite the lock to make the roster.
Two of the center spots are going to be taken by Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as long as those two want to play. McDavid takes up another one. Young Mitch Marner will probably get serious consideration as well. Stamkos will be battling for a role with players around his own age like Patrice Bergeron and John Tavares as well as some of the younger players like Mark Scheifele and Tyler Seguin. There are also a couple of pre-teen wunderkinds skating around the lake in Ball’s Falls, Ontario that will be the next big prospect four years from now.
Stamkos, one of the most competitive players in the league, will do everything he can to force Team Canada to take him in 2022. Although he is quiet about it, he does use grudges to motivate him. Even if he is older, he’ll still be in phenomenal shape, because that’s what he does.
Still, the reality is that 2018 really may be Stamkos’ last shot at an Olympic gold medal, and the struggle to make a decision has to be tough for him. It’s easy for Toews and Crosby to play the corporate line because they have their medals. Would they be a bit more adamant about going if they didn’t have those medals on the shelf? Probably. Should they invoke the nuclear option as Pension Plan Puppets suggests? Probably not.
For Stamkos to not even get a chance has got to be eating him up inside. Will he join Alex Ovechkin in the “I don’t care, I just go” club? (Although in a more polite, Canadian manner.) Based on his history, Stamkos would review all the available information and present a detailed argument that sways his owner and general manager and the fan base. Maybe he’ll talk Marty St. Louis out of retirement and lead a ragtag band of AHLers and Juniors to Olympic glory over Ovechkin and his fearsome collection of KHLers. Someone will make a movie and everyone will be happy.
...But most likely the higher-profile players are issuing quotes about being disappointed because they recognize this for what it is — the NHL trying to create leverage for the next contract negotiation. They don’t want to rock the boat too much because there is still plenty of time for the NHL to open discussions back up. After all, when has either side not waited till the last minute to tackle a serious matter? This is just par for the course.
There is still a chance that Stamkos gets his shot to put on the Team Canada sweater in PyeongChang. For the Sochi games, the NHL didn’t agree to send the players until late in the summer. The same could happen here. Who knows, the tough line could work for the NHL, and the IOC will give them a little piece of the pie, like allowing them to run highlights or market Olympic/NHL cross-branded merchandise. Doubtful, but it could happen.
If the NHL sticks to their guns and bars the majority of their players from going (face it, no one is keeping Ovechkin from doing what he wants), Stamkos could go down as the greatest player of his generation to not get a chance to play for a gold medal. That would be most unfortunate.