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No Fly List: Specter of Tavares Sochi injury haunts 2018 NHL Olympics decision

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What happened to John Tavares in Sochi could have happened to anyone. And now it’s one of the reasons the NHL won’t be going to South Korea in 2018.

Ice Hockey Gold Medal - Sweden v Canada
Hey why is that one guy wearing slacks... oh.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I still remember watching John Tavares tear his MCL at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. I was at work, watching the game over whatever site it was on (as one does) and at first I didn’t want to believe the injury was that bad. Sure, he was helped off the ice by teammates and grimaced very demonstrably in pain. But he’s tough. He’s John Tavares. He’ll be back in the next game. Right?

Wrong. He was not back. He was out for the rest of the games and was awarded his gold medal as a part of Team Canada while on crutches. His season for the Islanders was over as well. My heart still breaks for him three years later. That picture of Tavares laying prone with his face plastered against the end boards will horrify me until the day I die, which is why I didn’t use it above.

The common wisdom at the time was that Tavares’ injury scuttled the Islanders season. The fact is that their season was over long before Sochi even started. With his team in desperate need of a capable goalie, GM Garth Snow chose instead to trade for noted non-goalie Thomas Vanek, who clicked nicely with Tavares over the next few months, but couldn’t elevate the Islanders to anything other than mediocre. A few weeks after that Olympics, Vanek was traded for a single prospect.

Now the NHL (via its member owners) has said it isn’t going to send its players to the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea and many of the reports are citing Tavares’ injury as one of the prime reasons why not. The league’s brass no doubt remembers the harsh words Snow had right after watching his team’s captain and best player get hurt. He excoriated the International Olympic Committee, asking:

"Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It's a joke," Snow said. "They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don't want to pay when our best player gets hurt.

"This is probably the biggest reason why NHL players shouldn't be in the Olympics, it should just be amateurs. And it could have happened to anyone; it just happened to be us that lost our best player. A lot of people pay to see John play. It wouldn't matter if we were 10 points clear of a playoff spot or 10 points out. We lost our best player and he wasn't even [injured while] playing for us."

This, of course, drew howls of laughter from this continent, where people wondered who was going to compensate Islanders fans for all of the pain and suffering Snow had inflicted upon them throughout his tenure.

But beneath the hacky jokes, it turns out Snow was speaking for many of his colleagues and their bosses. Even if he hadn’t said anything, the damage was already done. Snow was right that the worst case scenario of a star’s injury in a non-NHL tournament could have happened to anyone. It just happened to be Tavares. Anyone was all the owners needed to bail on something they didn’t want in the first place.

So the NHL doesn’t want to send its players to Korea without insurance or at least some compensation coming their way. And the IOC, an entity so vile and shameless that it makes the disgusting NCAA look like the Girl Scouts by comparison, doesn’t want to start handing out money to every pro league that sends its players to the games. Remember, this is a consortium that guilts third world countries into spending billions to build them entire cities, only to leave them high and dry after a month. It’s the unstoppable evil versus the immovable owners. Pick your villain.

The players, meanwhile, are already threatening to do their national duty and go to South Korea anyway, regardless of what the dudes signing their checks say.

I probably should have stated up front that I have no dog in this fight. I understand and greatly appreciate how much players want to play for their home nations, and have ever since I watched a very proud Czech team win gold at Nagano in 1998.

However, my personal inclination is to always root for Islander over country. I was pulling for Canada to take gold in Sochi because that would mean Tavares would have won something, a feat he might not achieve as an Islander for some time. I would also greatly prefer to not watch my team’s best player get hurt playing for a team other than the Islanders (which, ironically, Tavares did just about a week ago against the Devils at Barclays Center).

So maybe my traitorous opinion doesn’t mean jack shit. Let’s ask a guy whose opinion should matter: John Tavares, just days after returning from the Olympics with a torn ligament in his knee and a gold medal around his neck.

"For me, as a player I think it's important for us to play," Tavares said. "I think you saw how much we enjoy representing our countries at that level. But you put ourselves in [Snow's] shoes, you can understand why teams are concerned about injuries. Certainly I know he cares a lot about the Islanders and so do I. There's always that concern anytime you step on the ice. It's a tough situation. I love playing for my country and if I got the call again, I would."

I wouldn’t expect anything else.