February 24, 2018

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Jets' would-be Olympians disappointed NHL took a pass on Games

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Dmitry Kulikov (5) during practice at Bell MTS Place.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Dmitry Kulikov (5) during practice at Bell MTS Place.

Dmitry Kulikov is quieter than his Russian compatriot Alex Ovechkin, but they agree on at least one thing — NHL players should be at the Winter Olympics for the men's tournament that begins Wednesday.

"He's a vocal guy and he's gonna be saying most of what everybody else is thinking," Kulikov said of Ovechkin, Russia's biggest international star. "He's played in the Olympics and I know how patriotic he is. I'm the same way. I'd love to play for my country in future Olympics if we ever get a chance — if I make the team."

The veteran defenceman, who's enjoying a career renaissance in Winnipeg after joining the Jets as a free-agent signing last summer, believes the NHL's decision to stay away from the Pyeongchang Games is a missed opportunity. The 27-year-old native of Lipetsk has represented his homeland three times at the world championship (earning a silver medals in 2010 and 2015) but never at the Winter Games.

Perhaps he will get that chance at the next Games in Beijing in 2022. NHL owners opted to stay away from the Olympics for the first time since 1998, citing the 15-hour time difference, insurance-coverage issues, travel costs and a lengthy mid-season disruption among the chief reasons for doing so.

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Dmitry Kulikov is quieter than his Russian compatriot Alex Ovechkin, but they agree on at least one thing — NHL players should be at the Winter Olympics for the men's tournament that begins Wednesday.

"He's a vocal guy and he's gonna be saying most of what everybody else is thinking," Kulikov said of Ovechkin, Russia's biggest international star. "He's played in the Olympics and I know how patriotic he is. I'm the same way. I'd love to play for my country in future Olympics if we ever get a chance — if I make the team."

The veteran defenceman, who's enjoying a career renaissance in Winnipeg after joining the Jets as a free-agent signing last summer, believes the NHL's decision to stay away from the Pyeongchang Games is a missed opportunity. The 27-year-old native of Lipetsk has represented his homeland three times at the world championship (earning a silver medals in 2010 and 2015) but never at the Winter Games.

Perhaps he will get that chance at the next Games in Beijing in 2022. NHL owners opted to stay away from the Olympics for the first time since 1998, citing the 15-hour time difference, insurance-coverage issues, travel costs and a lengthy mid-season disruption among the chief reasons for doing so.

"I haven't played in the Olympics yet and it's once every four years and you don't know if you're going to get that chance again," said Kulikov, who was prepping for Friday's game with the St. Louis Blues instead of Russia's opening game against Slovakia Wednesday in Gangneung, about a half-hour from Pyeongchang.

"Of course, it's the dream of every Russian player growing up to play for your national team in the Olympic Games. Everybody is just kinda disappointed and in their own way just deal with it."

Several Jets would have been strong candidates to represent their countries, including forwards Mark Scheifele (Canada), Blake Wheeler (U.S.), Joel Armia (Finland), Patrik Laine (Finland) and Marko Dano (Slovakia), and defencemen Kulikov and Dustin Byfuglien (U.S.) and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (U.S.).

Team Canada, which opens against the Swiss Thursday, is competing in Group A along with host South Korea, Czech Republic and Switzerland.

"I wish the NHL was at the Olympics right now but that didn't happen," said Scheifele, who will be cheering on friends and current Canadian players Eric O'Dell and Derek Roy. "Hopefully, for the the next one, NHL players get to go. It's a pretty special event to get a chance to go to and not everyone gets to, so hopefully they figure it out by the next one."

Armia, in the middle of a breakout season with the Jets, admits his Olympic aspirations have always been overshadowed by ambitions of playing in the NHL.

"It's a lot more (about) playing here," Armia said. "Well, which one would you choose?"

He still believes the Olympics are an essential experience for top players.

"I think it's the biggest national team tournament you can be in," he said. "I hope I can play there. I think NHL players should be in the Olympic Games."

Veteran Jets blue-liner Tyler Myers has represented Canada at the under-18 level (2008), under-20 (2009) and senior worlds (2010) and he believes there is overwhelming support from the players to participate at the Olympics.

"I think we would like to be there," he said. "I'm basically on the outside looking in and I don't know all the details, but I'm sure most of the players around the league would say we'd like to be there. When you think of the Olympics it's a pretty special event and it doesn't mean we won't be cheering on Canada when we're watching and hope they do well, but certainly, as players I'd say we'd definitely like to be there."

Left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers, meanwhile, desperately wants to play in the Olympics someday. He was a member of the Danish national team that travelled to an Olympic qualifying tournament in Minsk, Belarus, in September 2016. The Danes lost two of three games and were eliminated while the surprising Slovenians earned an Olympic berth.

"We had a pretty good team, we should've won," said Ehlers. "For me, coming from a small country like Denmark... it would've been so huge. I would've loved being there if it meant playing for Denmark at the Olympics.

"The Olympics are one of the biggest things you can go to and playing for your country is huge, too. It would've been amazing."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Read more by Mike Sawatzky.

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