The Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to dodge, dip, duck, dive and...dodge all questions about the 2018 Olympics to this point, but that was bound to end sooner or later. Ownership hasn’t really taken a clear stance, Sidney Crosby has avoided questions on the matter deftly as always (but still expressed the standard player opinion that he hoped to play) but often the more outspoken players on Olympic issues are usually Russians. And it may be Evgeni Malkin who pushes the envelope the furthest to get clarity to the situation.
Malkin will reportedly seek council with Mario Lemieux around Christmas to discuss Olympic participation in next February’s Olympic games, per this Translated TVA story (originally from the Russian media Soviet Sport, though I haven’t actually been able to track the source material down):
Evgeni Malkin will meet with the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mario Lemieux [regarding] the 2018 Olympics in order to know his position.
After the impasse in negotiations between the National Hockey League and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) this spring, the Russian forward preferred not to discuss the issue with the big boss in order to focus on the Club in the playoffs before winning the Stanley Cup.
"I thought I would talk to him, but I thought it was better to wait just before the Games, possibly at Christmas or after New Year's Day," Malkin told Soviet Sport.
A member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and somehow the savior of the Penguins' franchise, will Lemieux have enough leverage to influence the NHL's highest levels?
"It will be difficult to go if the league refuses. Mario may not be able to influence their decision. But I want to talk to the owners,” he said.
"It's necessary to know what they think of the file."
A day with the cup in Moscow
Meanwhile, Malkin will have his day with the cup this Thursday (July 27th) in Moscow and the trophy will leave the country the next day.
The 30-year-old striker says he does not have any extravagant plans.
"We gave birth to a baby last year. I want the family to feel comfortable," he said, wishing to avoid airplanes and airports.
Obviously this situation isn’t going to go away before some resolution is given that no one really has at this point, besides the NHL word they are not stopping their schedule and won’t be participating. That’s the league view, but sure isn’t the player view.
However, many believe that either the IIHF (or member countries themselves) may bar NHL players from playing in the Olympics, even if players got tacit approvals from their NHL clubs, the issue almost certainly is beyond Malkin’s personal desires and Lemieux’s stature as one NHL owner in a multi-faceted, multi-issue negotiation between two huge organizations in the NHL and IIHF. And it seems impossible just weeks before the event that somehow both sides would reach an agreement.
And, somehow if individual NHLers were eligible/allowed, if the Penguins let Malkin step away from the team, what would they say to Crosby? What about Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist who both have played for Sweden in high level tournaments (including last year’s World Cup of Hockey)? What of Tom Kuhnhackl, who scored an OT goal that put Germany INTO the Olympics? Or Phil Kessel or Jake Guentzel possibly for Team USA? It would be a Pandora’s box if one player is permitted to leave in the middle of an on-going NHL schedule, with so many other key players who would also enjoy playing for their respective countries.
Repeat this process on every team in the league, and the NHL has a big problem- even if there’s not much clarity on the matter right now. The league officially “isn’t going” but surely literally every key player in the NHL doesn’t want to play in the NHL in February. Obviously it will be interesting to see how the process unfolds and what stops individual NHL players from temporarily leaving their teams. For Malkin, it doesn’t hurt to ask, but the matter isn’t as simple as Mario giving a thumbs up and Gene jetting off to Korea for a few weeks.
But one thing we do know is that Malkin figures to be the one for the Penguins who seems willing to take some sort of action to try and define the situation more clearly in an effort to play for his country in the Olympics, even if it certainly seems like a very long-shot that any NHL players will be able/capable/allowed by all parties to participate.