International play presents dilemma for pro athletes

For most people, if you asked them to choose between their job and their country, they would choose their country for the sake of patriotism.

In pro sports, that choice is a bit tougher.

The captain of Sweden’s Olympic hockey team is Henrik Zetterberg, who plays for the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL. He was recently removed from Olympic competition because of a herniated disk problem that arose overnight in Sochi last Friday.

Zetterberg’s Red Wings are currently sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, currently one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Zetterberg’s injury marks an unfortunate turn of events for Detroit, who sent 10 players to Sochi to compete in the Olympics. Zetterberg is the teams’ captain, as well as first-line center and leading goal scorer.

Is international success worth the risk of a failed season with a club team? Of course it is, but only in certain sports where the international competition is on the same level or above that of the club championship.

Zetterberg’s choice to participate in the Winter Games was the right one, even though he endangered the Red Wings’ season by doing so. The importance of Olympic hockey as hockey’s premiere international competition, and one that holds significance both in the sport and beyond makes Zetterberg’s choice very valid.

Hockey is not the only sport where this dilemma arises; although, it is the only one where international play exists in the middle of a professional or club season. In baseball, the World Baseball Classic falls during the winter months when the MLB is not in season, but the pitchers involved have to deal with the additional strain on arms that rely on the five months of rest between the end of the season and the start of spring training.

The World Baseball Classic is not the Olympic hockey tournament. To put it in perspective, little leaguers don’t put “win a WBC title” on the top of their baseball to-do-list; they write “win a World Series”.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was an unfortunate waste of my beloved Boston Red Sox’s money and time because he placed a premium on pitching in the WBC, which effectively ended his career in Boston. In 2007 and 2008, Matsuzaka compiled a 33-15 record and was a significant contributor to the Red Sox pitching rotation. In the 2008-2009 offseason, he was the star of the Japanese WBC team and pitched his way to the competition’s MVP award.

In the 2009 season for the Red Sox, Dice-K started just 12 games, and finished with a 4-6 record and an ERA of 5.76. His next three seasons were more of the same and involved him drowning in poor control and various shoulder injuries.

Dice-K’s choice was the wrong one, and I don’t feel this way just because I’m a Red Sox fan. The WBC was in its inaugural edition when he won the MVP award in 2006 and had not yet established international credibility (in my opinion, it still hasn’t). He certainly got his payout from the decision, as the Sox sent a $52 million contract his way, but because of his various injuries, has not had the professional success that he might have dreamed of.

It is tough, but it comes down to the prestige of the event in question and the impact of participating. The FIFA World Cup is similar to Zetterberg’s hockey choice because it is an event with extreme historical importance and to win it is undoubtedly the primary goal of every soccer player worldwide. In addition, the low risk of injury involved in the World Cup allows participants to play without scaring their clubs that they might pick up an injury.

It’s a proud thing to play for one’s country, but foolish patriotism can cost athletes dollars and titles. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be Dice-K.

Peter is a freshman in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @pbaileywells22.