Alex Ovechkin played in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and he's played in the Winter Olympics three times. For him, the chance to play for Russia in the Olympics far outweighs any World Cup opportunities and even if the NHL decides to stop releasing players for the Winter Games, they won't be able to stop him from going.
The Washington Capitals captain echoed statements he's made before on the topic. Ovechkin was particularly outspoken ahead of the 2014 Olympics in his native Russia. It was uncertain whether the league would allow its players to attend, but the NHL struck a deal with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation to make it happen.
Now those doubts are being raised again about the NHL's participation at the 2018 Olympics. With the games being held in PyeongChang, South Korea, most hockey insiders believe a majority of the league's owners will vote against Olympic participation. On top of that, the negotiations between the IOC and NHL may be in for some challenges. The league will still speak with all parties before rendering a final decision, but it is unclear how soon such a decision will be made.
Ovechkin doesn't need to wait to hear the results, though.
With the Russian captain addressing the media as part of World Cup of Hockey media day, he was asked if it is his intention to play in the Olympics in 2018 even though the NHL has not yet formalized a decision.
I asked Ovechkin twice, the 2nd time to be sure, and he said his plan would be to play in South Korea 2018 regardless if NHL there or not— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) September 15, 2016
He even joked a bit about maybe being retired from the NHL by then and they wouldn't be able to tell him what to do.
One of the challenges the NHL faces in its decision is that many players -- not just Ovechkin -- want to play in the Olympics. Even though the league is running the World Cup to provide that best-on-best international competition and open another revenue stream, many players feel strongly about competing for Olympic medals. That's particularly true of those from European countries, but plenty of North American players have been vocal on the topic as well.
In the past, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said that if Ovechkin wanted to play in the Olympics, the team would not stand in his way. It's obviously wise not to upset the best player the Washington franchise has ever seen, but given the relationship Leonsis has with Ovechkin, he knows how important playing for Russia is to him. Other owners may not feel as generous with allowing their stars to risk injury with very little benefit to the team.
Russia has not won an Olympic medal since 1992 when the former Soviet Union won as the "Unified Team" and haven't won a best-on-best featuring NHL players since the 1981 Canada Cup. There is some desperation from Ovechkin, who will go down as one of the greatest Russian hockey players of all time, to win Olympic gold for his country. As big as winning this World Cup would be, it's not the same as an Olympic medal.
According to Yahoo Sports, Ovechkin sounded a little critical of the World Cup, stating that it's "good for the game, but not good for" the players. On top of adding another event for players to participate in on top of the already-long regular season, Ovechkin bemoaned the presence of non-national teams -- Team North America and Team Europe -- in this event.
"That's why you can't compare it to the Olympic Games. You can't compare those two tournaments. " he said (via Yahoo Sports). "Yes, the best players are here. But it's not the Olympics."
Even though Ovechkin said what he said, you know he's going to bring it while wearing the Russian crest on his jersey.
The NHL has plenty of time to work things out with the IOC and IIHF regarding NHL participation at the 2018 Olympics. However, with Ovechkin being far from the only player who puts Olympic participation among his priorities, it's going to be a challenging few years for the league to make sure they get this decision right.