Saturday, February 20, 2010

For Cup or Country

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.


Kyle Roussel said...

In my mind, it's always a player's prerogative to which he may prefer; gold or cup.

As far as Markov is concerned, where I have a bit of an issue is that this is not the first time. But the larger point in my mind is that many want Markov to wear the C for the Habs.

After this, I cannot disagree more. I respect his choice to save his health for his country. But if I'm a guy like Gorges who's out there fighting with a tender gash in the back of my head, I would question the commitment of a guy who won't stand shoulder to shoulder with me.

That's my issue. The team badly needed him, and he chose to stay away. I don't know if he spoke with Gauthier about this. What would be interesting (and fair in my mind) would be if they had a chat, and Gauthier said that he could skip the games if he wanted to remain healthy for Russia, but he would then forfeit his pay for one or both games.

I can't for the life of me reconcile the fact that he was too injured to play on Saturday, yet was practicing full speed with Russia on Sunday, and played 20 minutes of quality hockey on Tuesday.

I also wonder how much ambivalence towards Markov stems from the fact that we desperately need him and many fans will justify just about anything in order to keep him happy.

J.T. said...

@kyle: The thing is, I don't believe Markov willingly skipped the Flyers games. Not for a minute. I see no difference in his missing a game Saturday and playing 20 minutes on Tuesday in this case than there would be with any other injury. If it had been a Habs game on Tuesday instead of an Olympic game, nobody would say a word about him playing. He was practicing with the Habs too. The doctor said he couldn't play on Saturday, but he was well enough to go on Tuesday. End of story. But because the next game he was cleared to play was an Olympic game, suddenly there's a big conspiracy and questions about his heart when it comes to the Canadiens. I just wish he'd had the injury three weeks before the Olympics and played the damn Flyers games so people wouldn't be looking for something to criticize.

You mention Gorges...well, Gorges was one of the guys who marvelled at how hard Markov was working to come back from his tendon injury because he knew the team needed him. I think he's pretty happy standing shoulder to shoulder with Markov.

Unknown said...

I am for everything you mentioned in your post and for the reply towards Kyle's comment.

I honestly don't really think that Markov was really hurt. That being said, it doesn't bother me one bit knowing that our best player wanted more time to prepare for the Olympics, where he represents his native country, so he can remain slightly more assured that he will be able to lay it all out there, where you don't get to play much in your life.

The opportunity to represent your country in the Olympics come about twice in your career, maybe three if you're lucky. That is only the opportunity. Actually being a world class player and having enough skill to actually be considered to play for your nation, let alone step on the ice for them, is, on its own, something to be very proud of.

Unknown said...

Y'all may remember that Mario Lemieux saved himself a little bit before the 2002 Olympics -- and he was part *owner* of the Penguins. He took some flak for that, but I sure was happy he was showing that kind of dedication to our country. So I can't in good conscience hold it against Markov if he's done the same.

Shan said...

It's not as though by missing a few NHL games they're throwing away their Stanley Cup hopes for the medal. It's a small sacrifice. We make decisions like these in our lives all the time when we have to choose between two things that we really like. Often, we choose some sort of compromise that lets us have a chance at both rather than giving up one thing outright.

That doesn't make Markov some kind of bad leader. It's a very normal, reasonable behaviour and his teammates should get that. And I am happy for Markov. Plus, there are other benefits. Seeing your teammate be chosen for an Olympic team and play at that elite level can give you more respect for him. And aren't happier players better players?

You always have to weigh the risks and rewards, but I think the decision to play in the Olympics and even to miss a few NHL games to be ready is an obvious one and a good one. If you pass up the Olympics for a better chance at The Cup, the difference it'll make to your cup chances will probably be negligible and you'll give up another dream opportunity.

Anonymous said...

For me it boils down to Markov coming back early from his injury, playing a heavy pace, and being picked for the Russian team. You have to look beyond today. Play him back to back before he is good to go and he rolls into the Olympics with a big chance of getting hurt worse, and being unavailable the rest of the season.

For some folks every game is life or death, but frankly they are not. The NHL is at the point in their season where the better teams turn it on and sort themselves out. Markov is crucial to any Canadiens playoff success, but if they can not compete without him leading up to the playoffs then it doesn't really matter. Teams shut down crucial players all the time.

Me I wish the Olympic hockey had to be played on big ice. I hope the Canadiens make the playoffs, but I don't see it happening without changes. The current NHL points system just lets us pretend certain teams are in the hunt. So this is likely the best hockey I'll get to see until the playoffs. At least with Markov, Jagr, Crosby, and Forsberg playing I get to see skill.

I also think Gorges got that puck in the head by doing something he has been taught over and over again not to do. That doesn't exactly make him an example of a competitor that Markov should strive to emulate.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, JT, none of these guys had to serve a day in the military. As promising hockey players they get enlisted, but they spend their time training and playing, rather than serving.


Anonymous said...

"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."

Agreed. And many European and Russian players when interviewed have said that winning a gold is actually more difficult than winning a Stanley Cup. Reasons cited include the one-game elimination that makes upsets more possible and the difficulty in developing chemistry over such a short period of time.

Great article.

Homme de Sept-Iles