The Flying Tomato, the universal obsession of bobsledding and the random intrigue in ski jumping for three weeks define the Winter Olympics. But, for players in the National Hockey League, the opportunity to become a hero and wave the American flag on the gold medal stand has been taken away.
Remember T.J. Oshie, the American hero who lifted the U.S. Hockey team over the Russians in a shoot out during the Sochi Olympics? After delivering on the biggest stage four years ago, Oshie will be in Washington, D.C., taking on NHL opponents with the Washington Capitals instead of competing in Pyeongchang.
After five straight trips to the Winter Olympics, the NHL announced it would be restricting league players from competing at Pyeongchang. Viewers, who have been waiting four years for a repeat of the drama that comes with an NHL-filled U.S. team taking on international powerhouses, now leave their hopes on the shoulders of a group of unknown American hockey players.
The NHL made the decision to prohibit league players from the Olympics because it requires a 17-day break in NHL action. The 17-day break falls neatly after the Super Bowl and before the start of Spring Training–a prime opportunity for the NHL to reel in viewers. The Olympics only come every four years, but the NHL must go on.
What does this mean?
The 2014 U.S. Olympic hockey team consisted of 25 players all from the NHL. This year, the U.S. will have to pull from the crop of NCAA players and American players in European pro-leagues. The roster, which was officially announced at the end of January, consists of three current NCAA players, three American Hockey League players, and the remaining players are from various European pro-leagues.
“It’s a bunch of guys that have been overlooked for parts of their careers,” captain Brian Gionta told Sports Illustrated in a recent Olympic preview interview. “They’re a hungry bunch that wants to prove that they’re capable and deserving of this opportunity.”
While the United States was able to string together a formidable roster that is currently ranked fifth in the International Ice Hockey Federation, the highflying intensity of familiar names from the NHL, such as Ryan Miller (Anaheim Ducks), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) and Zach Parise (Minnesota Wild) will be missing. The 2018 U.S. team is led by former Buffalo Sabres wing, Brian Gionta. Gionta, 38, is the oldest player on the U.S. roster, almost twice the age of some of his teammates, as Troy Terry (University of Denver) and Jordan Greenway (Boston University) are only 20-years old.
Gionta, unlike many of his teammates who are still looking for the opportunity to make it in the big leagues, just retired after a 14-year career in the NHL, which included stops in Montreal, New Jersey and Buffalo. Gionta last represented the United States in the 2006 Olympic Games.
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In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Gionta discussed what it was like to mentor young players and what it was like to return to the Olympics almost 11 years later.
“It’s the whole aura of the Olympics. You’re in the Olympic Village, you’re going to other events, it’s a dream come true,” Gionta said. “I think everybody dreams of participating in the Olympics at some point. That stage is an unreal stage to be a part of.”
With the lack of NHL talent, the gold medal field is wide open. The U.S. knows that by playing with a group of semi-pros, they have a tall order ahead of them, especially going up against a competitive group of Russians. While Russia was banned from Olympic participation because of the doping scandal, a group of Russians, who were cleared of any connection to the scandal, that were looking for the opportunity to just compete in the Olympics for themselves have assembled to compete under the Olympic flag.
“If you look at the Russian roster they have the biggest names of players that have played internationally and obviously in the NHL and are stars,” Team USA head coach Tony Granato said during a media call ahead of the team’s departure for South Korea, according to Dan Burns of Reuters News.
The Russians will be without Alex Ovechkin, who is widely considered one of the greatest NHL players. Ovechkin, who has played for the Washington Capitals for 12 seasons, has led the Russians in the past three Olympic Games, scoring eight goals total.
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Locally, Columbus Blue Jacket fans would have seen a couple familiar faces on the Russian team, had Russia been able to participate. Two Russian-born Blue Jackets, Artemi Panarian and Sergei Bobrovsky were almost guaranteed to make the roster, but the NHL erased any chance they had remaining despite their homeland not competing. But a 2015 sixth round draft pick for the Blue Jackets has wiggled his way into the Olympics by joining the group competing under the Olympic flag.
Vladislav Gavrikow, is eligible to compete because he plays in Columbus’ farm system, which is separate from the NHL. Olympic hockey action kicks off on Feb.14. The U.S. faces the exact same group opponents as they did in 2014 (Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia). The gold medal game will be held on the final day of Olympic action, Feb. 24. The U.S is set to face off against Russia on Feb. 17 in group play.
The NHL may not be sending players to Pyeongchang, but the U.S. players are hoping to make their big break and bring back a medal.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia commons.