Did the NHL kill men's ice hockey at the Winter Olympics?

The world’s best league has banned its employees from competing in South Korea. But there’s still the chance to watch the world’s greatest female players

When the 1980 US men’s hockey team upset the Soviet Union and went on to win gold, they did it with a roster full of little known players. Thirty-eight years later, Team USA will try to win its first gold since the “Miracle On Ice” featuring a similar roster of unknowns and no names.

Mark Arcobello, a 5ft 8in, 29-year old forward who last played in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs two seasons ago and now draws a paycheck from Bern SC of the Swiss-A league, where he is a top scorer. Defenseman Jonathon Blum, a 2007 first-round pick of the Nashville Predators who struggled to stick in the NHL and has instead spent his last three seasons in Russia’s KHL. Goalie David Leggio, a 33-year old minor league veteran now playing out his career in Germany. Players with similarly middling resumes fill up most of the rest of the 25 roster spots for the US team that will open play on Wednesday against Slovenia. Meanwhile, some 10,000km away on the very same day, American hockey superstar Auston Matthews will play the Columbus Blue Jackets in Toronto.

When the NHL made the decision last April that it would not allow its players to participate in the Olympics for the first time since 1994, it doomed the men’s hockey in Pyeongchang to second-rate, rag tag status. Or blessed it, if you prefer. “I loved the NHL players, but there’s something fresh about the format this time,” US coach Tony Granato said back in January. “We’re going to take advantage of that. We have to see how good we are.”

To accomplish that, Granato may want to borrow the famous Herb Brooks/Kurt Russell quote from Miracle, the superb documentary on the 1980 Olympics, when the legendary coach tells his underdog team: “You think you can win on talent alone? Gentleman, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” While there is a definite nostalgic feel to the men’s ice hockey tournament this year, the US is not alone in being forced to play without its top talent. Sidney Crosby will be in Pittsburgh, not in Pyeongchang. Henrik Lundqvist will be in the net for a struggling New York Rangers team, not serving as the anchor to Sweden’s latest medal winner. And Alexander Ovechkin will be in his same old Washington Capitals jersey, not pulling on the new sweater of the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” There is no talent-laden heavy favorite in this year’s tournament. No 1980 Soviet Union. In fact, there technically isn’t even a Russia. It’s the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics again, but if the entire tournament was made out of the underdogs.

What no one knows, and likely won’t for a while, is if this year’s superstar-free men’s tournament will be a one-off event or the new normal. The NHL won’t commit to returning its players to the Olympics for Beijing in 2022. “I never say never, but I find it hard to envision a scenario where it makes sense unless, possibly, the Winter Games are back in North America where the time frame, and the attention, and the logistics and travel are a lot different,” league commissioner Gary Bettman told SV Sport back in November, doubling down on his opinion that shutting down the NHL for two weeks for the Olympics is not worth it from a marketing perspective. How showcasing the top ice hockey players in the world in front of the massive Chinese market in 2022 is anything but a huge win for the sport only makes sense in the minds of the NHL’s marketing department, of course. They’re the same people who thought it wise to broadcast just three of Connor McDavid’s 82 games this season nationally in the United States and chose Kid Rock to perform at last month’s All-Star Game.

Lack of talent is not a feature on the women’s side in Pyeongchang. In Team USA’s opening 3-1 win over Finland, the deciding goal was set up by a beautiful pass from Hilary Knight, one of the faces of the sport. Knight plays professionally for the Boston Pride, but the NWHL chose to shutter during the Olympics so its players could compete in Pyeongchang. Stopping play for the NWHL’s four teams as opposed to the 31 in the NHL is surely a huge difference, as is the fact that the NHL has national TV exposure nine months a year as opposed to the women’s game getting little more than the Olympic stage every four years. But the fact remains that the women’s tournament will feature the best players in the world in Pyeongchang while the men’s side is full of players who a month from now who will be back playing in backwater towns.

Jocelyne Lamoureux with literally the filthiest goal in this entire tournament
U N R E A L pic.twitter.com/DSt4AE4mrV

— Hannah Bevis (@Hannah_Bevis1) February 13, 2018

There’s hockey for every taste in these Olympics. Watch the women’s side for elite skill. Watch the men’s side for players getting once-in-a-lifetime shots to play for their teammates and their country in front of the entire world. Anything could happen. Canada can’t just be penciled into the medal round like every other year. It’s a welcome change of pace. Like Granato says, there is something fresh about it. This one time. If we get it again in 2022, it will feel plenty stale.


DJ Gallo

The GuardianTramp

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