Steve Yzerman: NHL players in Olympics ‘fantastic for our league’

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SOCHI, Russia — Tuesday at a mass press conference for the Russian men’s national hockey team, the man who vowed to participate in the Sochi Games no matter what the NHL said was given a prime opportunity to voice his support for ongoing Olympic participation. Instead, Alex Ovechkin sidestepped the question, saying his focus was on the current Games, not the next ones four years later in South Korea, or beyond.

Evgeni Malkin spoke next and backed ongoing participation — “I wish that every four years the NHL lets the players go to the Olympic Games” — and drew some applause for his comments.

But the moment was sort of lost by then.

Perhaps the most fervent argument for keeping NHLers in the Olympics we’ve heard here in Sochi has come from Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman.

“I think this is fantastic for our league,” he said. “We go back to the last year, and even beyond that, look how much attention this draws, how much conversation this draws, not only in Canada, but around the world. It promotes our league, it promotes our players. I believe it’s good for our game, I believe it’s good for the NHL.”

“It’s once every four years, I’m hopeful that we can continue. I understand there are challenges for our league, and things that we’d like to improve upon with the NHL’s relationship with the IIHF, the IOC, but I think it’s good for our league, and I’m hopeful that we’ll stay.”

The same question has been asked of numerous players here. Some have sidestepped it, a la Ovechkin. Others have said they’d like to keep coming. None have pulled an Ed Snider and said, “I hate ’em.” Big surprise there, right?

If the NHL had its way, unless commissioner Gary Bettman is trying to bluff his way to a better agreement with the IOC, these Sochi Games would probably be the last for the league.

Yesterday, deputy commissioner Bill Daly downplayed the allure of the Games.

“We certainly think the key element that makes the Olympics successful is best-on-best competition,” said Daly.

Translation: it’s not the magic of the Games that makes the hockey special. It’s the hockey. And we can hold our own best-on-best competition with the World Cup.

Daly did, however, allow that the Games were “special” for the players.

“I have heard the players feel the Olympics is something special and it is something different than best-on-best, it is the Olympics,” he said. “So there is an added element that the Olympics bring that is impossible for us to recreate.”

Translation: if the players want to be in South Korea four years later, they’d better speak up.

Related: Daly expects 2018 Olympic decision in six months