It’s fair to say that many people aren’t happy about the NHL’s decision to prevent their players from going to the Olympics this year. There is more talent in the league today than there’s ever been, and stars are coming out of markets at a torrid pace other than Canada. With the amount of star power in the league at the moment, this tournament had the potential to be one of the best in recent memory. Instead, Team Russia will enter the tournament as a heavy favourite and likely steamroll its way to the country’s first ever gold medal (the Soviet Union last won in 1988). With the NHL missing a perfect opportunity to showcase its game on a global scale, here’s the reality for ice hockey at the Olympics this year.
What Could Have Been: USA vs. Canada Gold Medal Rematch
Naturally, one of the biggest rivalries in the Olympics is Canada versus its neighbour to the South. The United States team has lost to Canada in the gold medal game twice, in 2002 and 2010, and they haven’t won a gold medal since 1980. However, this year Team USA would’ve been able to put together arguably their best team of all time, with emerging superstars such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Brock Boeser and Blake Wheeler at their disposal.
One thing Canadians have been able to count on in recent years at the Olympics is securing the gold medal in ice hockey. Winning three of the last four gold medals in ice hockey, the Canadians have been wildly dominant and consistent. The last time the two countries met in the gold medal game was in 2010, which ended in Sidney Crosby scoring the iconic golden goal in overtime. The United States, alongside other countries such as Sweden and Russia, would have posed as legitimate threats to dethrone Canada as the world’s best hockey nation this year at the Olympics.
With that being said, the United States clearly have their eyes set on the gold medal upon entering the tournament this year. Instead of witnessing an epic clash of teammates and elite players, we will be treated to Brian Gionta vs. Derek Roy. On paper, their teams are pretty evenly matched. But with no NHL players present, if the United States do play and beat Canada at any point in the tournament, it will unfortunately always carry an asterisk.
There was still some potential for this to be an exciting hockey tournament even without any NHL players. Only a couple of months removed from the World Juniors, we saw that there was an immense amount of talent from a group of future NHL players. Instead, many of the teams that were put together decided to leave the kids off their rosters. Team Canada’s average age is 31 years old, and is composed of mainly ex-NHL players who have been playing overseas for the last several years. Notable players include René Bourque, Maxim Lapierre, Mason Raymond and Ben Scrivens.
Team Canada GM Sean Burke decided to go for veterans over youth, taking no players from the junior or NCAA level. Team USA followed a similar path, however they do have three college players. Most other countries did the same, picking only a handful of young players and choosing to go with NHL and KHL veterans for the rest of their rosters.
Sure there are some inspiring stories about unheralded ex-NHL players finally getting a chance to play at the Olympics, but at the end of the day it likely won’t make for exciting hockey. Had countries chosen teams made up of more amateur players and young players from the junior or collegiate level, games likely would have been much more thrilling.
Women’s Time To Shine
Similar to the men’s teams, the women have an immense rivalry of their own. Since 2002, Team Canada has won four straight gold medals, defeating the United States three times in the process. The interesting thing to note about this rivalry is that the United States is actually considered a better team than Canada. They have won seven of the past eight IIHF Women’s Championship tournaments, and have beaten Canada every time in doing so. On the overall international stage, the United States has Canada’s number. However, their achilles heel seems to be the Olympics, where they just can’t seem to beat them.
At the Sochi games in 2014, Canada won a thrilling gold medal game against the United States in which they tied the game up late in the third and then won in overtime. The fierce level of competition that the women showed brought widespread attention and praise to their side of the sport that many weren’t familiar with prior to the Olympics.
Team Canada’s 2018 roster includes 14 players from their 2014 gold medal winning team. That includes Marie-Philip Poulin, Meghan Agosta, Meaghan Mikkelson and Shannon Szabados. Team USA has 10 returning players, including Amanda Kessel, Meghan Duggan, Kacey Bellamy and Gigi Marvin.
With Canada and the United States being heavy favourites on the women’s side, a gold medal rematch between the two seems inevitable. If they do meet at any point in the tournament (hoping it’s for the gold medal), it will be a game you surely do not want to miss.
The Final Case
All in all, men’s ice hockey is for the most part an unappealing option at the Olympics this year. Surely not many people will be setting alarms at 4 a.m. to wake up and cheer on their country. Inevitably when it gets to the elimination rounds people will begin to watch and care more, but before that time comes around you would probably be better off watching the tons of other sports that are being played. With the NHL playoffs slowly approaching, there will be no shortage of exciting hockey in our lives. Curling and speed skating are only truly riveting once every four years, so take advantage!