Perhaps you saw the video of Indiana Pacers star Paul George’s gruesome leg injury. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford watched it. Forgive him if he saw Sidney Crosby’s face on George’s fallen body. Or Evgeni Malkin’s face. “We all take risks when our players play in international competition,” Rutherford said last week. “What happened to that Indiana player is one of the big ones. That’s every general manager’s worst nightmare.”
George, an NBA All-Star, was in Las Vegas practicing with his USA teammates Aug. 1 in preparation for the FIBA Basketball World Cup that begins later this month in Spain. In an intrasquad scrimmage, he went up to block a shot — something he has done hundreds of times — but landed awkwardly. The compound fracture of his right leg will force him to miss the upcoming NBA season.
George still will be paid according to the terms of his new five-year, $92 million contract.
Rutherford said pro teams routinely carry insurance on their players’ contracts in the event the players are injured but added: “It covers the money you have to pay to a player, but it doesn’t cover the loss of what that player can do for his team. Nobody can make up for that.”
Pacers president Larry Bird is well aware of that harsh truth but reacted calmly. “We still support USA Basketball and believe in the NBA’s goals of exposing our game, our teams and players worldwide. This is an extremely unfortunate injury that occurred on a highly visible stage but could also have occurred anytime, anywhere.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had a much different thought. He long has been opposed to NBA players playing in the World Cup or Olympics and said FIBA and the International Olympic Committee reap all the benefits of the players’ participation while NBA teams assume all of the risks. “The IOC (pulls in) billions of dollars,” Cuban told ESPN.com. “They make a killing and make Tony Soprano look like a saint. … The greatest trick ever played was the IOC convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money. The players and owners should get together and create our own World Cup of Basketball.”
Rutherford’s opinions are closer to Bird’s than Cuban’s. He gets that the NHL benefits in visibility and popularity in an Olympic year, especially when the hockey games are in a time zone where they can be shown in prime time in the United States and Canada. But he doesn’t like that the NHL season is shut down and its arenas go dark for three weeks. There’s also that worst-nightmare thing.
“No general manager is overly excited when he hears one of his players is picked to play,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford, with the Carolina Hurricanes last season, felt the Penguins’ pain in February when defenseman Paul Martin’s right hand was broken while playing for the USA team at the Sochi Olympics. Martin missed 18 NHL games.
Rutherford especially felt the New York Islanders’ pain when star forward John Tavares was lost for the remainder of the NHL season with a serious left knee injury while playing for Team Canada. Islanders general manager Garth Snow, sounding very much like the NBA’s Cuban, told Newsday: “Are the (International Ice Hockey Federation) and the IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It’s a joke.”
Rutherford felt his own pain when Hurricanes star Eric Staal had a serious knee injury at the 2013 IIHF World Championships. “That had an impact on his season last year,” Rutherford said.
In light of those injuries and the one to George, the NHL will have plenty of discussion before committing to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I don’t know how I would vote right now. That’s a really good question,” Rutherford said. “My personal opinion is that the Olympics should be an amateur event. I always looked at it as something that kicked off people’s careers. But that changed. I guess now I would be more inclined to vote to play if the Olympics were in a country where hockey is really important.”
Canada, the United States and Russia, to name just three? “Absolutely,” Rutherford said. But South Korea? “Not so much.”
Rutherford acknowledged the opinions of the NHL bosses might not be the determining factor in the Pyeongchang decision. “It’s the players’ game. They want to play. They’re playing for their country. Everybody loves that.”
For many European players, international competition is every bit as important, if not more, than the Stanley Cup playoffs. A gold medal is more important than the Cup. Crosby is Canadian, but he probably would have a hard time picking between his Cup with the Penguins and his two Olympic gold medals. He would say he’s glad that he has won both championships.
The NBA players are just as passionate and nationalistic about international competition. They have loved playing in the Olympics since the NBA first sent them to the 1992 Barcelona Games. You might remember the Dream Team?
“It’s hard to tell the players not to go,” Rutherford said.
The NHL and NBA won’t, the risk of injury be damned.