Olympic roster dispute rages on; the Ken Hitchcock watch
The NHL and NHLPA are protesting to the IIHF, but no hard rule has been found
The US and Canada may turn to phantom injuries to offset Russia's late moves
Ken Hitchcock's fate may be hanging on the Blue Jackets' game in Edmonton
It's been two weeks since Russian Olympic coach Vyacheslav Bykov rattled the hockey world in the U.S. and Canada (especially the offices of the NHL) with his contention that he can add or subtract from his roster at any point between now and night before the tournament opens on February 16.
"I wouldn't guarantee a place on the Olympic team to anyone," Bykov was quoted as saying. "If my players can't perform up to the standards playing for their respective clubs, then how can I rely on them in Vancouver?"
That statement came as a shock to Team USA and Team Canada, which were operating under the assumption that rosters have been locked in and change can only come through substituting a healthy player for an injured one.
There are two problems with that:
A) No one has been able to come up with a black and white rule, in print or anywhere, that says Bykov is wrong. Though my memory is not to be counted on, as best I can recollect, his view was the norm well before NHL players came into the mix back in 1998.
B) The International Ice Hockey Federation, which has overseen the Games for the International Olympic Committee longer than any of us as been alive, made statements indicating that Bykov is correct and that it supports his view over the one put forth by the NHL.
The IIHF, in response to numerous media inquiries, always comes back with the same answer: "It's a provisional roster and it can be changed prior to the final roster on Feb. 15," says IIHF spokesman Szymon Szemberg. "The only provision is that all players must be on the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) list for anti-doping purposes."
In an initial response made to ESPN.com, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly stated by e-mail that the NHL's stance is that teams "cannot substitute for players unless there is a bona fide injury."
Reached by e-mail Thursday afternoon and asked if there has been any resolution to the dispute -- the NHL and NHLPA have filed a joint protest to the IIHF --- Daly wrote: "To the extent there really is an ongoing dispute, there has been no resolution. We have an agreement with the IIHF and the participating federations which allows substitution only in the event of bona fide injuries. This is the same agreement we have made (and all countries abided by) in the past."
There is no reason to doubt Daly. There surely is an agreement, likely in writing, that supports him. But does it override what appear to be IIHF and IOC rules? Does it apply to non-NHL players?
No one has issued a definitive answer and one could easily surmise that the IIHF is tweaking the NHL's nose to twist it out of joint due to a litany of issues the two organizations have been warring on for years. It's also possible that the IIHF finds itself caught between the old rock and the hard place knowing full well what the rules are even though it agreed to an "arrangement" to bring NHL players into the Games, one that has served the IIHL well in terms of growth and money.
You might, at this point, be asking why this is so important.
Well, what Bykov has done is throw open the argument that he's entitled to survey the rosters of competing teams and make revisions to counter them. For instance, former NHL All-Star defenseman Sergei Zubov was not on the initial Russian roster, but now that Canada, the U.S. and the other countries have announced their teams, Bykov may well want to change the makeup of his defensive corps by adding a sizeable defenseman who can, say, help slow the speedy Americans or counter Canada's amazing depth at center. Bykov may also want to add a veteran to take advantage of Canada's Drew Doughty, a second-year NHL player who could be made a victim of inexperience, especially with the pressure of Canada going for gold on home ice in front of a nation that expects nothing less.
Though the heads of Team USA and Team Canada are on record that they will honor what the NHL says is the spirit of the agreement, both can't help but notice Russia's edge and will want to be able to respond accordingly. If they don't win their argument with the IIHF, might we anticipate a rash of undocumented "injuries" the night before the tournament begins?
It's a grey area right now, but as the Games get closer and the interest and intensity become more all-encompassing, one could expect that Canada and the U.S. are going to be looking not only for every advantage, but to counteract the one that the Russians have, at this point at least, carved out for themselves.
The Hitchcock watch
The Blue Jackets play the Oilers in Edmonton on Thursday night, and while the outcome is essentially meaningless to both teams -- also-rans from different divisions -- a Columbus loss could well mean the end of employment for coach Ken Hitchcock.
That's neither right nor fair, as one could argue that the Jackets' No.1 problem is goaltending (or lack of same) and not coaching, but this is a game that GM Scott Howson has to believe his team can win. If he can't see an effort, especially in a market where he grew his resume to the point he was able to land the job in Columbus, it's not out of line to imagine he'll react with a coaching change.
The Jackets made the playoffs for the first time in their history last season and a huge part of that was the coaching of Hitchcock and the play of goalie Steve Mason. Hitchcock is the same coach, but Mason, a rookie last season, has been a colossal flop this time around. While that's not unusual for a young goalie in the NHL, the Jackets put themselves at risk when they traded Pascal Leclaire during the offseason, in essence putting all their faith in Mason. That falls on Howson, and if he's a patient man he'll understand that sometimes a goalie, as well as a team, has to take a step backward before it can take a step forward. It can be a hard lesson to learn and an expensive one given that the Jackets are seeing softness at the gate and need to win to keep their fan base.
The betting here is that Howson knows all that, but must see his team give an effort for its coach in a market where it matters most to the GM.
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