Don’t Change What Olympic Hockey Has Become

My biggest fear about this Team USA was scoring goals. When the team was announced on New Year’s Day, I battled a debilitating hangover to stay awake through the Red Wings-Maple Leafs Winter Classic for the release of the team, and my first thought following the end of the ceremony was that Team USA was going to be a more star-studded version of the New York Rangers. They would be a hard-nosed team that forechecks through grinding and plays steady defense, but really, they would rely on their goaltending to win games.

During the first game, my fear was being realized for the first 14:27 against Slovakia until John Carlson scored. And then when Slovakia tied it just 24 seconds into the second, I thought “This might be a one-goal game” and “What if we don’t score then next goal?” But Team USA scored six unanswered goals and won 7-1. They got past Russia thanks to Quick’s net being off its mooring and T.J. Oshie’s incredible shootout skills. Their game against Slovenia turned into their second first-round laugher and then it turned out I had nothing to be nervous about playing the aging Czech Republic team in the quarterfinals.

All along we knew the tournament would come down to Team USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland and Russia. We knew those five teams were the only teams with a true chance at winning gold and that the other seven teams were just there to fill out the 12-team field. Getting to the semifinals seemed like it would be a formality (and it was) and then once Team USA got there is when the tournament would really start for them. But once there is when my biggest fear for Team USA 2014 was realized. Team USA was shut out by Canada and lost the chance of playing in the gold-medal game and then they were shut out by Finland and lost the chance at leaving Sochi with a medal. The feeling about the state of USA Hockey between the win over the Czech Republic and the start of the semifinal game against Canada was erased. After a four-win week, the positive storylines surrounding Oshie and Quick and Phil Kessel turned into criticism of Patrick Kane’s production, Dan Bylsma’s coaching and the front office’s player selection process.

Prior to the tournament, I thought the gold medal was Canada’s to lose the way I have thought the gold medal was Canada’s to lose every Olympics. But after Team USA’s 20 goals in their four dominant efforts and Quick’s Conn Smythe-esque performances, I thought this was the year USA Hockey overtook Hockey Canada. I was wrong. And this might have been the last chance for the United States to prove itself in the Olympics with NHL players.

If Gary Bettman, his trusty staff and the NHL owners have their way, there’s no way the league will allow its players to compete in the 2018 Games in South Korea. I can’t imagine there are any general managers, who aren’t part of their country’s front office, that enjoy watching their players — the keys to their own jobs and livelihoods — compete in playoff-like games with nothing at stake for their employers. I’m sure Glen Sather isn’t too happy that his leading scorer will miss the next few weeks with a broken hand suffered in Sochi and Garth Snow has already made it known that he isn’t a fan of the Olympics now that his franchise player and Team Canada’s third-best player is out for the rest of the season with a torn MCL.

Despite injuries, which are going to happen in the NHL as well the Olympics, the Games have proven to be the best infomercial for a league that has tried everything to increase their audience and gain attention in the post-lockout era. But the NHL still doesn’t recognize that. Gary Bettman doesn’t recognize that. All he knows is that for three weeks, his league didn’t play any games this season even though what was happening in Sochi was doing more for the growth of his game than anything that has happened in North America this season. But can you blame Bettman or the owners for not wanting to continue to capitalize on something positive for the league and its fans?

Under Bettman’s watch, teams have left Canada as well as two of the United States’ few hockey hotbeds in Connecticut and Minnesota for the Southern U.S. Bettman locked out his players in 1994-95, again in 2004-05 and a third time in 2012-13. He has been the face of countless bad ideas for the league and its fans and has continued serving as the commissioner, preaching that the league is flourishing, finding new revenues and doing better than ever. Or at least better than it was at the time of his most recent lockout. He has pissed on his fans, real fans who have grown up with the game in an attempt to make the sport appeal to those who first heard T.J. Oshie’s name nine days ago. He has only ever cared about attracting casual fans and you would think that he would view the Olympics as a marketing blessing every four years. Instead he has been outspoken on trying to prohibit NHL players from participating in the Olympics.

It won’t come as a shock if NHL players aren’t competing in the 2018 Games and we get basically another version of the World Juniors. As fans, we won’t get to properly measure each nation’s level of hockey against the other nations since the countries with the best players won’t be allowed to send those players to the Olympics. It will still be quality hockey and I will still watch because it’s hockey, but it won’t be what Olympic hockey has become and is supposed to be: each country’s best players.

I will be back for the Olympics in four years in South Korea. And I’m sure I will be on my couch on New Year’s Day fighting the lasting effects of too much Fireball and waiting for Team USA to be unveiled after the Winter Classic. I just hope the league and its owners allow that team to be full of NHL players.