I have to say, I like the level of competitiveness in the Olympic men's hockey tournament. No team, with the exception of Norway, has been truly down and out in most of the games. Everybody is really going all out for the honour of their countries, which is great to see. The thing I don't really like, though, is all the anger directed at European-born NHL players because of their dedication to playing for their countries, with the underlying implication that that dedication detracts from their commitments to their NHL clubs.
We've seen it within our own fan base, with the suspicions leveled at Andrei Markov regarding his health. He was saving himself for the Olympics instead of giving his all for the Habs, some say. Or, if he wasn't well enough to play the Flyers, he shouldn't be allowed to play in the Games either. It all inevitably leads to the accusation that European players would prefer to win a gold medal than a Stanley Cup, as though that's some fatal flaw indicative of missing guts.
Well, you know what? If they'd rather a gold medal than a Cup, I think it's perfectly reasonable and understandable. We're talking about people's countries at the Olympics. People go to war for their countries. They die for their countries. Nationalism is an inbred passion that's evolved with human beings for thousands of years. Standing shoulder to shoulder with your countrymen and competing for the sake of national glory against the world once every four years isn't even close to the same thing as trying to win a club championship that happens every year.
For a lot of European players, their national teams are their hockey family. They've grown up with the same guys, playing in the same tournaments all through their on-ice lives. They speak the same language and share a history. Many of them did compulsory military service together. Those are the kinds of bonds you can't duplicate on an NHL team where players come and go, and where your linemate today might be your opponent tomorrow. The NHL is a job. I imagine most of us, given a choice, would show more loyalty to our families or our countries than our bosses.
It's different for fans. We attach our loyalty to an NHL team when we're kids and we give it our undying passion into adulthood. For us, a Stanley Cup is the pinnacle of hockey success. It's that way for a lot of the players who grew up in the same hockey culture we did, and I think it becomes that way for players from other countries who spend many years in North America. But I think it's a bit much to ask that a player who takes a job in the NHL should suddenly discover an unwavering desire to win a trophy he can always win again next year.
When you look at the Olympics in terms of competition, you can't get much better. Every single great player in the world, no matter what league employs him, can attend and play for his country. If you're a competitive player, there's got to be some special glory in being able to say you beat the very best to win your medal. You don't get that by beating the Senators or the Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals.
So, just because a player would choose an Olympic gold medal over a Stanley Cup championship if forced to pick one, it doesn't mean he's got no guts or heart. It doesn't mean he won't give all he can give for the team that employs him full time, or that he doesn't care. Andrei Markov, for example, has been loyal, hardworking and by all accounts, a great teammate with the Canadiens. I have no doubt if the Habs make the playoffs, he will play the best hockey he can play to help them go as deep as possible. But if you laid a gold medal and the Cup next to each other and asked him to pick one, I wouldn't blame him for picking the medal.
The thing we forget though, is the two are not mutually exclusive. Players don't have to pick. When fans dump on European players for preferring the Olympics, they don't think about the fact that a player can fight for a gold medal AND a Stanley Cup. In fact, the qualities that make a player a gold medalist...loyalty, hard work, skill and competitiveness...can make him a Cup champion too. If the NHL has watered itself down through over-expansion and needs to import European talent to make it worth watching, it's not for us to criticize the priorities of the players our teams hire. They come with good will to put on our cherished sweaters, and we should give them a break if they cherish the sweaters of their own countries once every four years.