If Olympic men's hockey is going to be this lackluster, bring back the NHL


GANGNEUNG, South Korea – When the National Hockey League began balking at sending its players to these Olympics, the International Olympic Committee tried to play hardball. The IOC said that if the league didn’t come to South Korea in 2018, it might not allow it to play in 2022 at the Beijing Games. That’s a market the NHL, like every business, covets.

The NHL didn’t budge and held its players out of the Games for the first time since 1998, citing a disinterest in shutting down its regular season for about two and a half weeks.

After two lackluster days of the Olympic tournament, once an electrifying, star-studded event, the IOC should forget tough negotiations.

It ought to beg the NHL to return. Bribe it even.

This is still hockey and this is still teams full of national pride chasing Olympic medals. It’s a mix that assures a pretty nice baseline when it comes to excitement.

Maybe this gets good.

Right now, though, it’s unrecognizable compared to what it once was.

No Sidney Crosby. No Alexander Ovechkin. No Zdeno Chara. No Patrick Kane. No, say, Connor McDavid getting to make a star-turn that’s tough to pull while playing on a bad Edmonton team.

No NHLers at all, so none of the best 750 or so players in the world. They are all back in North America, playing each night a version of hockey that is faster, more skilled and more entertaining than the Olympics, words that would have been impossible to type the past two decades. Why watch this when you can watch that?

With the NHLers out, the 12 “national” teams here have been forced to put together rag-tag rosters that mix aged veterans, non-NHL journeyman and young prospects trying to prove themselves.

It’s an odd mix that thus far has produced ho-hum hockey.

On Thursday afternoon, Sweden defeated Norway 4-0 in a snoozer of a contest in front of a half-filled Gangneung Hockey Centre.

Yes, those were the famous yellow and blue sweaters of Sweden, but that wasn’t John Klingberg or William Karlsson or even Henrik Zetterberg out there. It was a team full of grinders playing for a country known for majestic and creative play.

Norway, meanwhile, just wasn’t any good. It took nearly 15 minutes to record a shot on goal, a fairly harmless wrist shot from the blue line while trying survive a 5-on-3 penalty kill. It was the Norwegians’ only shot of the period.

Norway’s best moment was when it scored a goal after one of their players plowed over the Swedish goalie (it was later overturned). Other than that, not much.

The quality of play for Team USA (pictured) and the rest of the Olympic men’s hockey field has been noticeably down. (AP)
The quality of play for Team USA (pictured) and the rest of the Olympic men’s hockey field has been noticeably down. (AP)

It’s not that the game was terrible, per se. These are still mostly professionals in this tournament. And the young players have talent. Team Sweden boasts defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft. Alas, he didn’t dress.

It’s just what this event used to be, the finest hockey ever played. That’s what the Olympics try to be in every sport. The outrageous collection of talent, heavily weighted to technical skill, getting to play a mostly finesse game on the large Olympic surface with near do-or-die stakes every night created a magical product. That it came along just once every four years added to the excitement. It was special.

Crosby, for instance, has won three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. His greatest hockey moment, however, is his “Golden Goal” for Canada in overtime against the Americans in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

It’s more than just player ability, although that tends to cover problems up. Trying to put together a team on such short notice was always a challenge for the Olympics. When you had the best players in the world, they could overcome it.

With these guys? Who still must mesh after arriving from various second-tier pro leagues around the world? So far, not so good. The systems are simple, the power plays sloppy. There’s a lot of dump and chase.

The best of the best has turned into a mess of the rest.

If the IOC is stuck with no NHL players for the foreseeable future, it might want to consider following the lead of Olympic men’s soccer, which turns its event into an Under-23 tournament. (In 2016, Brazil defeated Germany in what could be a preview of a late-stage match this summer.)

A U-19 men’s hockey tournament might work better for cohesiveness and give fresh-faced prospects a chance at this. The rivals between countries are just as intense.

Really though, there is only one solution.

We’ve seen Olympic hockey at its absolute best. We saw it five consecutive Olympics. This isn’t it.

Someone, somehow get the NHL back over here.

Gary Bettman has won this round of negotiations.

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