GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – The U.S. men’s hockey team went to a shootout against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament this week.
As Team USA’s Troy Terry prepared for his shot, T.J. Oshie tweeted his encouragement.
“Terry! Terry! Terry!” he said.
Too bad the Americans didn’t have Oshie there in person to handle the shootout, rather than his moral support. Team USA went 0-for-5 in the shootout and lost 3-2 in the elimination game.
Olympic hockey just isn’t the same without NHL players. That’s a criticism directed more at the inability of power brokers to reach an agreement than a slight of players who took the ice here to experience an unexpected dream.
Every other Olympic sport offers a showcase of the world’s premier talent. Show up at venues for cross-country skiing, curling or figure skating and you will see the best of the best performing their craft.
Not men’s hockey this year. That’s a shame, and hopefully something gets resolved before the next Winter Games in 2022 in Beijing.
I’ve covered the past two Olympic hockey tournaments, this one and Sochi in 2014. Same sport, but apples-to-oranges comparison in talent.
Again, that’s not meant to belittle the effort of the players who competed in these Games because they displayed passion and enthusiasm and genuine appreciation for this opportunity.
But you can’t take Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews and the best players in the world off the ice and expect people to pretend that nothing is different.
Oshie became an overnight star for Team USA in Sochi after performing his razzle-dazzle moves in a barrage of shootouts attempts. He made four of his six shootout attempts in a 3-2 win over Russia.
The atmosphere in Olympic Park that night was electric. Bolshoy Ice Dome was so intensely loud that I had a pounding headache the next day. The caliber of talent in that entire tournament made every game feel must-see.
The NHL couldn’t ask for better publicity for its product. The emotional investment as a spectator just doesn’t feel the same this time.
In an interview with Ovechkin last week, TSN’s Darren Dreger asked if he’s watching the Olympics.
“Nope,” he said. “Maybe hockey, but thanks Bettman.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is an easy target, but he’s not solely to blame. The league’s reasons for not sending players for the first time since 1994 involved many complicated considerations.
The International Olympic Committee announced that it would no longer pay for NHL players’ travel and insurance, which reportedly cost $14 million for the Sochi Games.
The NHL has never been fond of a nearly three-week disruption to the schedule, and South Korea is hardly a booming hockey market so owners also didn’t see opportunities to expand their product.
Injury concerns remain an understandable sticking point. Patriotism would be a hard sell to an owner who had a franchise player return home with a season-ending injury.
All of those arguments have merit. It’s also OK to feel bummed that stars aren’t here.
Money talks and owners see more possibilities in Beijing in four years, creating optimism that the NHL will return next Olympic cycle.
“China is going to be a whole different situation,” Wild owner Craig Leipold told reporters before this season.
Players would be delighted by that, not just fans. They love to represent their country on this big stage.
In their absence, USA Hockey assembled a roster that included a mix of minor-leaguers, pros playing in Europe and four collegians.
The team didn’t come together as a full group until arriving in South Korea and had only five practices before the first game. Those factors made it difficult to envision Team USA making a deep run. Fans can argue the makeup of roster construction, but no plan was ideal without NHL players.
Men’s hockey is always one of the marquee events at the Olympics, but buzz has been minimal because the NHL season plays on simultaneously and the trade deadline looms, one day after the gold medal game.
Is there any doubt which one will generate more conversation?