Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis Has Correct View on Olympic Participation

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Posted December 16, 2016

In what is already usually a hot topic every four years, the National Hockey League’s potential participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, to be held in South Korea, is seriously in doubt.

Since 1998, the league has sent its players and coaches to the Games, oftentimes held on different continents. Logistically, that is difficult for the NHL, and it isn’t easy for any of the 30 teams from a business perspective either.

“There are a lot of owners, a lot of clubs, over the years that have been very concerned about what Olympic participation does to the season. What it does to players in terms of injuries. Not just those that go, but having a compressed schedule can make players more tired, more wear and tear on them, the potential for injury is greater. I think after doing five of these, I don’t know. I think ‘fatigue’ might be a word.” – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

While Bettman’s sentiment effectively echoes what many league and team executives feel towards the Olympics, there is one key aspect that is left out of that quote. And that is how the players feel about the issue.

Caps' captain Alex Ovechkin has stated his intent to play for his country in 2018 with NHL permission or without it.

Caps’ captain Alex Ovechkin has stated his intent to play for his country in 2018 with NHL permission or without it.

As we all know, hockey is not just a game to these top tier athletes. The opportunity to represent their country on a worldwide scale is something that each and every one of these players relishes.

There may be no player more prideful about his country than Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who has on numerous occasions asserted that he would play for his country whether the NHL gave him permission or not.

Ovechkin is certainly not alone in his intentions to play in PyeongChang. Not only is it likely that the majority of players support Ovechkin’s view on the issue, but so does his owner.

Ted Leonsis has probably been the most outspoken owner in the league on the issue. Some may see it as a situation where Leonsis and the Capitals are concerned about Ovechkin’s reaction should they attempt to stop him from going, but Leonsis’ support has been unwavering throughout the whole process.

“It’s not a tough spot for me,” Leonsis said following the Board of Governors meeting Friday. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.”

Leonsis, just like every owner, has faced his share of criticism for various reasons since taking over the Capitals. But when it comes to supporting his players, he is very consistent.

A few months ago, former Capitals beat writer Alex Prewitt, now of Sports Illustrated, interviewed Leonsis on a variety of topics which included the upcoming Olympics and whether or not he would support player participation even if the NHL declined to send players.

“It’s a players’ league. The fans come to see the players. They don’t come to see me play. But the players have to realize, is it good for the game? Is it growing the game? There’s the risk of injury. They have to weigh all of that. The union has to weigh all of that. The stakes get higher every four years. There’s more revenue. The players get paid more money. It’s a big business. And so I think it’s almost every four years, you have to have that gut check, and the union and the league and the players and the owners, we all have a voice. But to me, the overriding voice is of the players.” – Capitals owner Ted Leonsis via SI

What Leonsis says here is basically the opposite sentiment of what we hear from commissioner Gary Bettman and many other league executives and owners. “The overriding voice is of the players” is key here, and it is clear what their voice indicates.

In a league where teams have such a huge amount of control over their players – think the restricted free agency system that is oft-criticized – it is going to be very easy for teams to threaten punishment towards individual players if ownership does not outright support participation in the Games.

In this case, Ted Leonsis hits the nail right on the head. Whether or not the NHL allows its players to travel to PyeongChang in a little over a year, his support for his players’ wishes is commendable and, most notably, correct.