A case can be made that the most interesting aspect of the NHL is its international flavor. The fact that tremendous players come to North America to make a handsome living, as they retain a strong sense of nationalism, is part of the appeal.
You can’t celebrate the talent and intrigue the Swedes, the Finns, the Russians and the rest have brought to the league, and then complain that these athletes have a strong urge to play for their countries on one of the game’s great stages.
There are Wild fans moaning about the idea Mikko Koivu could be in Finland’s lineup when it plays Austria on Feb. 13 in an Olympic opener without having played for the Wild since Jan. 4.
Koivu suffered an ankle injury that required surgery. He’s not going to play Thursday when the Wild winds up the pre-Olympic schedule against Nashville, yet he could have medical clearance to be on the ice for the Finns a week later in Sochi.
Talk to more than a couple of Minnesota hockey fans and you will hear, “Koivu’s commitment and loyalty should be to the Wild.”
This is not about commitment and loyalty. It is about when a player is healthy enough to practice and then to play.
“If he’s medically cleared and there’s no risk of injuring it further, to me, I would want him to go,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said on Tuesday morning. “Given the time he’s been off, it would be almost like a little training camp coming back for when we get out of the break.
“You can’t replicate the games. The level he’d be playing at over there, if he could get in those games … he should be much stronger coming out of the break.”
Everyone who doesn’t see it that way should take note of hockey’s different approach to action:
There are not two weeks spent getting pitchers’ arms and hitters’ swings in shape before playing an exhibition. An NHL team assembles on a Tuesday and usually by Friday it is playing a preseason game.
There are no rehab assignments to the minors after missing a month with injury. The ethic in baseball is, “Joe’s going down to Fort Myers to play a few games.” The ethic in hockey is, “You’re ready to play, Zach? OK, you’re in the lineup tonight.”
Jared Spurgeon, a standout Wild defenseman, missed 14 games, had two practices and returned to the lineup with regular shifts in Tuesday night’s impressive 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay.
There’s no grand learning curve for a hockey system as there is with a football game plan. Show up. Play.
Repeat the question: “What if Koivu goes to Sochi and gets hurt again?” Yeo made that clear: “… if there’s no further risk of injuring [the ankle.]”
If there’s fragility, Koivu doesn’t play. If the ankle is stable, why not play?
Two weeks ago, we were hearing the same complaints when Zach Parise came back after missing a month with a broken foot. Yes, the NHL’s hardest-working star player had been foolish for missing only one game when the foot was originally injured in November, but he learned a lesson.
When he left the lineup on Dec. 23, it was exactly a month before the foot was fully healed and he returned to the lineup. There were suggestions that Parise might be again pushing the timetable in order to take his place on the U.S. Olympic team.
Anyone embracing that theory had to feel like a moron when Parise was named the NHL’s First Star for the week of Jan. 27-Feb. 2, when he had eight points in three games. He also was named the captain of the U.S. team in Sochi.
There’s an expectation that Finland will give the same honor to Koivu, if he gets to Sochi and is ready to go before next Thursday’s opener.
“OK, but what if Koivu ‘does’ get hurt playing for Finland?” selected media members and many Wild fans will continue to moan.
OK, and what if Erik Haula or Jason Zucker or goalie Darcy Kuemper (maybe the Wild’s most important figure at the moment) gets hurt playing for the Iowa Wild in Des Moines during the break?
This is what happens with hockey players. They heal. They play.
Zach Parise just got done proving that to everyone as First Star of the Week.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.