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How will the NHL handle the Olympics and the potential friction created with its players?

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The league has not announced policy on possible punishment for players who abandon their NHL teams to participate.

2017 NHL Humanitarian Awards Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

As the NHL off-season is right in the middle of its deepest slumber, one of the few topics that is being consistently discussed is the participation of NHL players in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Once the NHL announced in early April their decision to not participate, a number of assertions have been made that something can and in fact would be done to avert this fate.

For their part, the NHL has done its best to make it very clear that the issue is decided. Commissioner Gary Bettman shut down assertions that it was still an “open issue” by saying: “It is not and has not been. I hope that was definitive enough.” The league even named an All-Star Game site for 2018 in Tampa, underscoring the finality of the decision. The messaging from the league has been consistent and unwavering, but it has not stopped those who wish to see participation occur from continuing the discussion.

Some conspiracy theorists have reported that the NHL has a backup schedule in place which would accommodate the players participating in the Olympics. This rumor began with a report from Russian reporter Alexei Shevchenko, who claims his information is coming from Russian NHL players who have been in contact with the league. The NHL has certainly not confirmed this, and has repeatedly stated that the Olympics is, again, a dead issue.

While details have not been released on a potential back-up schedule, we can wonder aloud exactly what such a schedule would look like. Obviously, the start of the season cannot be amended, as we are already less than 60 days away from Opening Night at most arenas. Extending the season has ramifications not only on teams needing to rebook their facilities, but also on TV schedules, especially as it relates to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. NBC has dates in place that they expect to air the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final, so slicing out 16 days of the season in February and adding it onto the end of the year is not exactly a plausible solution.

At the same time, simply removing those games from the schedule and shortening the overall season is a non-starter on practically every level. The more you think about the idea of a “secret schedule”, the less plausible the idea seems.

So, with the schedule unlikely to change, one big question remains: what happens if current NHLers forsake their NHL teams this coming February to travel to PyeongChang to represent their countries? The most vocal of this potential group have been Russian NHL players who have made it known that they wish to make a run for a long-elusive Gold Medal, having not achieved this success since a Unified Team from former Soviet states captured Olympic gold in Albertville, France in 1992.

The most prominent player to speak out in stating he plans to participate regardless of whether other NHL players go has been Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. As recently as last week, Ovechkin has expressed his intent and desire to participate. Former NHLer, and current KHL star, Ilya Kovalchuk stated when he decided to remain in Russia this season that “one of the main factors was the upcoming Olympic Games. In 2018, only players who play in European championships and the KHL can compete there.”

All of which brings us to the real central point: If players decide they are going to go to the Olympics, either as individuals, in smaller groups, or even en masse, just what exactly is the NHL going to do about it?

As Forbes has noted, along with other commentators, Commissioner Bettman has broad authority granted to him to discipline players who are “guilty of conduct...that is detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey.” A likely internal threat would be significant fines and/or suspensions for any player who leaves their NHL team to participate in the Olympics. As the league already is seen as the “bad guy” in this situation (somewhat unfairly, as the International Olympic Committee has not met the NHL halfway and covered much — if any — of the player and league expense/risk for the participation of the NHL’s contracted players), it is unlikely that these potential punishments will be laid out publicly. That would be viewed as a threat and would be unwelcome from a public relations standpoint.

But you would have to imagine that the league will formulate a punishment procedure that would strongly dissuade a player from pursuing Olympic participation. Keeping in mind that participating players would potentially miss anywhere from 7-10 games during the Olympics, adding an additional, say, 15-game suspension on top of that would mean a player would miss potentially 25 of his team’s games. That’s close to one-third of the schedule.

What if the threat is to suspend a participating player for the rest of the season? What happens if Canadian players, who have previously been less resolute about this issue, make the decision to go? If the Connor McDavids and Sidney Crosbys of the world throw their hat into the Olympic Rings (see what I did there?), how will that affect the NHL’s decision and/or punishment structure?

What would the reaction of a fanbase be if one or more of their best players miss significant time due to leaving for the Olympics? Would season-ticket holders who have a legitimate gripe about not receiving the product they paid for cause a financial backlash to the league itself? And, perhaps most intriguingly, would the legitimacy of the playoffs themselves be lessened if some of the world’s best players are forbidden from participating on account of being suspended?

While the details of the situation remain fluid, the NHL’s stance appears to be set in stone. Whether individual players or a larger group of players are willing to challenge the NHL’s authority, however, still remains to be seen. What we do know is that we certainly have not heard the end of this issue, and there are a number of different ways for it to change over the course of the next six months.