Will you care about the men’s Olympic hockey tournament if neither NHL nor KHL players can participate?
Greg Wyshynski: Admittedly, the Olympic men’s hockey tournaments that have involved NHL players have been absolutely extraordinary. Imagine the NHL All-Star Game, except instead of winning a big car after playing methodical exhibition hockey, the players are battling for national pride, Olympic immortality and playing with a ferocity not seen until the deepest levels of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
There’s just no replicating that, as anyone who saw the World Cup of Hockey will testify. The NHL players will be missed, even if I sympathize with the league in its battle against the abject greed and avarice of the International Olympic Committee.
In place of that unmatched elite level of play? Great stories and new heroes. The chance for a player like Linden Vey, out of the NHL at 26, to become an Olympic hero for Team Canada. The chance for Matt Gilroy, an NCAA star who last played in the NHL in 2014, to win gold for the United States and maybe earn his way back to the league. Or the chance for Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk to win gold for … uh … “Olympic Athletes From Russia,” or whatever.
Therein lies the other big issue now facing the Games: that if there are no KHL players in the games, it’ll drain the talent pool even further. No Kovalchuk or Datsyuk or Vey or Gilroy or dozens of others who compete in the Russian league. Every nation in the tournament will be impacted. The quality of play and familiarity with the players will drop.
But even then, the tournament will be one I’ll watch. First, because it’s Olympic hockey, which is like catnip to me as an Olympic junkie and a puckhead. Second, because these dramatic decisions by the NHL and (potentially) the KHL will have thrown the whole thing into unpredictable chaos. All bets are off. One hot goalie for two weeks, and Slovenia is your gold medal winner. It’s that nuts.
I’ll watch it for the drama, for the new faces, and for the old ones rescued from obscurity to become Olympic heroes. Meanwhile, for the incredible skill and brilliant intensity that we’ll have lost with the lack of pros in these Games, there’s only one place to turn: the women’s ice hockey tournament, where Canada and the United States will continue their blood feud and have us all wondering why we’re wasting so much attention on an inferior men’s draw to begin with.
Emily Kaplan: The NHL skipping the 2018 Olympics is a travesty for America. Team USA is enjoying a renaissance of young — and marketable — stars like we haven’t seen in two decades. “The talent level now, it really reminds me of our group [in] the mid- to late-’90s,” Mike Modano told me in August. And then Modano echoed what you’ve now been reminded of at least four dozen times since August. There’s nothing like an Olympic stage: “The eyes of the world are on you, and it puts the NHL on the forefront,” he said. “People get to see the best of the NHL players. To get all these stars together for a congested two-week period? It’s an incredible way to market the game.”
So not only are we being denied the chance to watch Auston Matthews front and center for Team USA, plus the possibility of Johnny Gaudreau and Jack Eichel skating on a line together, but mainstream America is missing out on a much-needed introduction to these guys.
I’ve come to grips, however, with the NHL missing the tournament. I’m not OK with it, but I’ve had time to process its absence. But if the KHL is out too — and if there is potentially no Russian participation at all? That’s another dagger. While it’s going to be great to watch a crop of anonymous Americans conjure up their best 1980 Miracle on Ice imitation, the truth is, Team Russia offered the most intrigue (and remaining star power).
Remember, a number of former Russian NHL players, like Ilya Kovalchuk, bypassed the NHL this season for a chance to play in the Olympics. The KHL boasts the best non-NHL talent in the world. International tournaments are about national pride. Considering the current political climate, a Russia vs. USA matchup might have generated (almost) as much attention as the terrific game between these countries in Sochi. USA vs. Canada would lose some luster, too, if the KHL blocks all of its players from going, even non-Russians. A bulk of the projected Canadian roster is playing in the KHL right now.
Of course, I’ll probably still watch as much of the Olympic tournament as I can. But I can’t recommend it to casual hockey fans with nearly as much enthusiasm.
Chris Peters: This is absolutely a fair question to ask, and I think that a large number of fans simply won’t make time to watch the tournament now. With the time difference, you kind of have to plan your Olympic viewing schedule out in advance. For me, however, this changes nothing in terms of my interest and desire to watch Olympic hockey.
We already knew the quality was not going to be at the same level as we’ve seen — particularly in Salt Lake City, Vancouver and Sochi. But in terms of competitive hockey, the KHL’s absence may actually balance the tournament out more, as I think Russia had the best available players by a fairly wide margin. If the KHL decides to bar its players from competing, something we don’t know for sure will happen, it’s going to create more opportunities for younger players. That’s especially true of Team USA, which had seven players with KHL ties playing at the Deutschland Cup, which was being used for Olympic evaluation.
Should that many players suddenly become unavailable, Team USA almost certainly will have to dip into the college ranks even more than it was already going to. Canada might have to take longer looks at prospects in major junior and college, too. That means a number of NHL prospects will get a taste of something closely resembling professional hockey. Meanwhile, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and the like will have to deal with a lot of the same problems as the Americans and Canadians. They can pull pros from their domestic leagues and remain competitive, if not even favored. Sweden and Finland have a number of intriguing options, in particular.
There won’t be as much wide appeal for this tournament, and while that’s not really great for the game, it doesn’t have to ruin the tournament for the hard-core hockey fans. There will be a lot of good stories — older players getting one last shot on the big stage, young guys getting their first, and things like that — which should keep the tournament compelling enough from a human interest angle. I think it will be worth at least checking out when the game times are convenient. I know I’ll be watching from start to finish.