Tuesday, February 27, 2018

NHL’s Regressive Move Produces Unusual Gold Medal Showdown

By Brad Oremland

The Winter Olympics interfere with the National Hockey League schedule. For 10 days near the middle of the NHL season, the world's eyes turns to the Olympics. In the past five Winter Games, the NHL has recognized the significance of the Olympics by pausing its season and allowing players to participate. This year, the NHL continued its season and formally forbade its players from representing their countries in the Games.

I understand why the NHL would prefer to pretend the Olympics weren't happening. They're logistically troublesome, players can get hurt, and so on. Perhaps most worrisome, the Games steal spotlight from the NHL, framing the Olympics, rather than the Stanley Cup, as the most important event in men's ice hockey. By withholding its players, the NHL made totally clear that this year's version of Olympic hockey was not the most important event in the sport.

That's a shame, I think. If a sport is to be played at the Olympics, the Games should represent the pinnacle of that sport. For the most popular sports, like basketball and tennis in the Summer Olympics, or men's ice hockey in the Winter Games, that's not entirely possible, but I wish Olympic ice hockey operated more like Olympic tennis — or, for that matter, like Olympic ice hockey between 1998-2014.

Of the 15 medals in men's ice hockey from 1998-2014 — the years NHL players participated — all were won by six countries: Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Those are still the top six teams in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Ranking. The top eight teams automatically qualified for this year's Games — those dominant top six plus Switzerland and Slovakia — joined by the host country of South Korea and three wild cards who won qualifying tournaments: Germany, Norway, and Slovenia. The Russian team was technically barred, instead competing as "Olympic Athletes from Russia." For simplicity, I'll call the team "Russia" and "Russian."

The 12-team field was divided into three groups of four, similar to World Cup play. The groups were won by the Czech Republic, Russia, and Sweden, with Canada also advancing as a wild card. The remaining eight teams competed in play-in games for the single-elimination, eight-team tournament. The U.S. and Finland advanced to the playoffs with easy 5-1 victories, accompanied by Germany and Norway, each of whom won in overtime, barely staying in the competition.

Those four teams — USA, Finland, Germany, and Norway — then faced the four who had automatically advanced out of group play. Three of the four favorites advanced: the Czechs knocked out Team USA, Russia dominated Norway, and Canada got a 1-0 win over Finland, but Germany upset Sweden with another overtime victory. Russia then blanked the Czech Republic 3-0, advancing to the gold medal match, joined by a German team that defeated Canada 4-3, its fourth consecutive 1-goal victory. Canada won the bronze medal over the Czech team in a 6-4 barn-burner.

That pitted Germany against Russia in the gold medal match. It was apparent early that the Russians were better. They controlled the first period, though it remained scoreless until Vyacheslav Voynov scored in the final second. Germany evened the score in the second period, mostly on the strength of superior goal-tending. With 7:00 left in the game, the teams remained tied at 1-1, so Nikita Gusev's goal with 6:39 remaining seemed a likely game-winner for Russia. Shockingly, the Germans won the face-off and tied the game 10 seconds later, then scored again with 3:16 left. Shortly afterwards, a penalty put Germany on a power play, effectively ending the Russian team's chances.

Russia refused to go quietly. They attacked on the penalty kill, pulled their goalie to even the ice, and tied the game with under a minute remaining. In overtime, a slightly ticky-tack high-sticking penalty put the Russians on a power play, and they took advantage with a sudden-death goal by Kirill Kaprizov, clinching the gold medal. It was a dramatic finish, but not a satisfying game.

The Russian team was led by two former NHLers, 39-year-old Pavel Datsyuk and 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk. Team Germany had gone 0-9 at the previous two Olympics. The quality of play was visibly lower than in previous Games, or even an average NHL game. There were fine players on both sides, to be sure, including NHL-caliber talent playing in European professional leagues. But the Olympics are supposed to match the best in the world against one another, and this year's men's ice hockey tournament failed to do so.

That is the NHL's fault. Furthermore, I believe it was a missed opportunity. A great hockey tournament, in front of a massive worldwide audience, represents a unique opportunity to grow the popularity of professional hockey in North America and around the world. It's an opportunity to sell ice hockey to casual fans watching the Olympics, an opportunity to awe fans of European leagues with the talent of the NHL's best, an opportunity to re-kindle the sport's dwindling popularity in the U.S., where the "Big Four" of baseball, basketball, American football, and ice hockey increasingly looks like a Big Three.

The gold medal game was dramatic, but not as much fun as it should have been. I'm a die-hard sports fan who has become less of a hockey fan every year for about the last decade and a half. I've gone from sermonizing about the Stanley Cup playoffs as the greatest postseason in all of sports to not remembering that the Penguins won last year's Cup until I looked it up while writing this piece. I'm one of those fans who might have come back after watching a great tournament over the last two weeks, being reminded how great high-stakes hockey can be. I didn't get that reminder, and I think the NHL made a mistake in letting the Olympics overshadow the league rather than using the Games as a platform to boost their sagging product.

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