February 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Patriotism, pride lure Wings to Olympics, but it creates conundrum for NHL

Russia's captain, Pavel Datsyuk, has missed the last 14 games for the Red Wings. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — Nobody likes to see their face on a wanted poster. So if you’re struggling to understand the divided loyalties that make this NHL participation in the Olympics such a conflicted mess, you probably should take that into consideration.

Because patriotism plays heavy, to use a bit of hockey parlance. And while it’s one thing to disappoint a city or a state, it’s another to let down an entire country.

Pavel Datsyuk’s grappling with that reality right now. Daniel Alfredsson knows the feeling, too. So does Henrik Zetterberg, having lived through the “day of shame” as a member of Sweden’s Olympic hockey team in 2002 along with the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom here in Detroit.

An inconceivable quarterfinal loss to Belarus in Salt Lake City — think “Miracle on Ice” minus the Cold War narrative — led to some unprecedented Scandinavian outrage. And as Alfredsson and his teammates headed back to work in the NHL, they were pilloried by their own people back home. “Guilty: They betrayed their country,” was the translated headline on the cover of the Swedish tabloid Expressen, accompanied by mugshots of the NHL players and their seven-figure salaries.

“Obviously, you remember that,” said Zetterberg, who actually was spared some of the grief, still playing in the Swedish Elite League at the time. “It was a tough couple weeks for us.”

They made amends four year later at the 2006 Torino Olympics, defeating rival Finland for the gold medal and returning home to Stockholm for a massive celebration.

End could be near

But at what price, gold? That’s the question that the NHL keeps asking of itself, every four years or so since the mid-1990s, when the league was full of big ideas — and not all of them good. And now there’s a growing belief this latest Olympic sojourn could be the last. Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, suggested as much in recent weeks, citing the overall experience as a “mixed bag.”

Indeed, though the hockey has been great — Canada’s overtime win over the U.S. in 2010 in Vancouver among many highlights – the size of the return on the NHL’s investment is debatable. The league has no control over the tournament or its players during the break, and while it helps build the NHL brand overseas it may be hurting the product here in North America.

The players love the Olympics, almost universally. The owners do not, in similar numbers. That leaves the NHL caught somewhere in the middle, unsure whether to pass or shoot, if you will.

“There’s talk that this one might be the last for NHL players, and I think that would be sad if it is,” said Alfredsson, headed to his fifth and final Olympics at age 41. “I think for the good of the game, the P.R. of the game, having the best players in the world together in a tournament like this — it’s great for us as players, but for the fans it’s unbelievable.”

Yet there’s a reason no other major U.S. professional sport puts its season on hold like this. Reasons, actually, from the injury concerns (nearly 70 combined at the last two Games) to the condensed regular-season schedule (the Wings just played 13 games in 26 days) to the timing of it all.

The NHL is going away just as the NFL is clearing the stage, for one thing, and though a USA-Russia game certainly sounds like appointment television, the 7:30 a.m. ET puck drop Feb. 15 does not. (That disconnect will be even greater in 2018, when the host city is Pyeongchang, South Korea.)

One possible solution on the horizon: Plans for a renewed World Cup every two or four years, beginning in 2015, that might satisfy the players’ — and national federations’ — desire to play internationally without interfering with the NHL schedule.

Sochi, or sit

For now, though, there are awkward moments like these: Monday night they held a pregame “Sochi Sendoff” before the Wings-Canucks game at Joe Louis Arena. And there was Datsyuk in uniform, even though he really wasn’t.

Detroit has 10 players scheduled to participate in Sochi, and six of them have missed games due to injury in the last month.

That includes three of their top four scorers, as well as goalies Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson, the latter of whom left Monday’s game with dizziness.

But Datsyuk, who was named captain of Russia’s Olympic team last month, is the biggest dilemma. He missed his 14th consecutive game Monday — he hasn’t played for the Wings since the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 due to an apparent knee injury — and his own coach, Mike Babcock, was audibly frustrated this weekend.

“Pavel wants to play for his country and be part of things,” said Babcock, who’ll coach Team Canada again this month. “But you have to be healthy.”

Monday, the 35-year-old center took part in an optional morning skate, said he felt “better” and talked about going through a full practice Wednesday. If all goes well, he expects to play Thursday at Florida, and then in Tampa on Saturday before heading to Russia.

“Just make sure I play at least one or two games (before the Olympic break),” he said. “That’s my goal now.”

Datsyuk, who has talked about the pride and pressure the Russians are feeling playing on home ice in Sochi, declined to address the speculation about whether or not he should withdraw.

“I’m not thinking about (playing) over there now,” he said. “I’m thinking (about) come back to our team and help our team.”

He knows what we’re all thinking, though, his bosses included: A 16-day break certainly wouldn’t hurt his prospects for a healthy finish to the regular season as the Wings fight to make the playoffs.

And when asked about divided loyalties, Datsyuk replied, “No comment. Everybody has (their) own mind. Everybody (has their) own decision. It’s my decision.”

But it’s one the NHL just might decide isn’t in the league’s best interest going forward.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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