Winter Olympics: Absence of NHL stars leads to wide-open men’s ice hockey tournament full of intrigue

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The men’s ice hockey tournament gets underway in Beijing today   (Getty Images)
The men’s ice hockey tournament gets underway in Beijing today (Getty Images)

When you take NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid out of the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament, what remains?

The answer is ‘pumped up’ college kids, grizzled veterans brought back from the cold, a hapless host nation and European countries licking their lips - in short, a whole lot of intrigue.

At the height of the Omicron surge in December, NHL franchises took their prized assets out of the line of Covid fire. They chose self-interest, to use the three-week break initially earmarked for the Games to catch up on matches postponed due to positive tests.

Unlike with basketball and the summer Olympics, the costs and benefits associated with bringing the world’s best to the five-ring circus have been moot. A deal on insurance was struck between the IOC and NHL in 1998 but collapsed in 2018 and top stars were also missing at PyeongChang.

So time for ‘Plan B’, which looks very different for all of the top nations. Canada went for a fondue, blending together four 36-year-olds with young stars like Owen Power, picked No.1 overall in the NHL draft by Buffalo Sabres. They will be captained by 37-year-old centre Eric Staal, part of the team that won gold at Vancouver 2010 thanks to Crosby’s golden goal.

“Just this whole thing, this whole experience, is crazy,” said 20-year-old netminder Devon Levi, appearing at the Games broadcast live on discovery+, Eurosport and Eurosport app. “I looked up to these guys and watched some of the guys on the team now when I was a kid. Being able to play with them now is unbelievable.”

USA is increasingly a hotbed of young talent and they doubled down by picking 15 college players, including two who featured at December’s aborted World Junior Championships.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

It feels like a long shot for that group to grab the nation’s first gold since 1980, a victory in Lake Placid immortalised in the movie Miracle. But they were college kids too.

“When we looked at the player pool available to us, we thought speed, skill, pace and tempo was going to be the strength of our team,’’ USA coach David Quinn said. “It is kind of like putting a band together. You do not pick five lead singers when you are putting a band together.”

The day that NHLers withdrew, betting odds for the tournament switched away from Canada to make the Russian Olympic Committee favourites for gold.

Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League is the strongest league outside of the NHL and they have allowed their top players to compete; although concerns remain over coach Alexei Zhamnov and the absence of key forwards.

Germany will aim to prove there’s no substitute for experience, retaining ten of those who claimed silver in PyeongChang returning here. 2019 world champions Finland have been at the centre of one of the biggest Covid storms of the Games, claiming organisers breached isolating player’s Marko Anttila human rights.

And then you have the host nation, a country of 1.4 billion where only a few thousand play hockey.

Ranked 32nd in the world their men’s team drafted in 15 players who weren’t born in China, including NHL legend Chris Chelios’ son Jake, to avoid embarrassment.

They begin their campaign against USA, dropping the puck on an Olympic tournament which sums up the Games itself - full of gaps and uncomfortable questions, yet somehow still unmissable.

Watch All the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 live on discovery+, Eurosport and Eurosport app