Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, hockey fans have suffered, in their own way, like everyone else.
They’ve not been able to enjoy a full regular-season schedule since the 2018-19 campaign, but this season, each team will play a complete, 82-game schedule in addition to playoffs.
This Fall, after two years of “bubble” existences and cancelled games, normalcy, it is hoped, will finally begin to prevail.
But this year also will almost assuredly bring hockey fans something extra as a treat they haven’t had for some time: NHL participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
Although there hasn’t been an official announcement as of late August, the expectation is that the league and International Olympic Committee will come to an agreement to ensure the game’s top male players will be part of the 2022 Games. This comes after the league and IOC failed to come to terms on NHL participation in the 2018 Sochi (Russia) Games, and an inferior product followed.
For hockey fans, this is something of a reward for making it through the misery and discomfort of the COVID Age. Yes, the 12-hour time difference between China time and North American time will be a challenge for some people, but for hockey lovers who’ve had to endure COVID tests to attend games and long stretches of time without any hockey at all, making a time adjustment will be a very small ask if it means seeing the best players represent their homeland. In many ways, it will be a mini-Stanley Cup tournament in the middle of the 2021-22 regular season, with all the players’ attendant heightened desire and determination to sacrifice whatever they have to in order to win a gold medal.
Now, there may be a few NHL team owners, coaches and GMs who don’t necessarily see Olympic participation as a massive, can’t-miss proposition – and you can see why they think that way: if a player or players suffer a major injury, and one that could knock them out of action for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, the league’s participation might be looked at as problematic. However, the “cons” of the “pros and cons” argument of Olympic participation can’t be viewed simply through that prism.
Having the best players in the sport on hand and trying their hardest will help the game’s growth across nations and around the world, and the memories generated will be as iconic as Sidney Crosby’s “Golden Goal” at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and the United States’ eight-round shootout victory over host Russia at the 2014 Games. It’s not a comment on amateur players who represent their country in Olympic Games; it’s just a fact of life that fans who are more familiar with players will have more invested spiritually, and financially, in Games that do have NHL participation.
In addition, NHL participation in the Beijing Games will put an added wrinkle in the NHL’s regular season: teams will have to balance out the ice time given to their best players in the first half of the season, knowing full well those players will be tasked with playing heaving minutes for their country in Beijing. And that time-measuring component will only increase once the Games are over and they return to North America; competition for a playoff berth will be ferocious, but do you want to use up your top players’ energies simply to lock up a playoff spot, and have them be all but completely out of gas once the post-season arrives?
Of course not, and that’s why NHL coaches will depend on their team’s overall depth more than ever in a year like this one. Leaning on some of a team’s lesser lights may pay off down the stretch – or they may make a mistake going that way, and watching their team’s overall playoff chances disappear entirely by the end of the regular season.
It will be fascinating in a multifaceted way, and there’s going to be no question we’ll see meaningful, high-stakes hockey at a time of year we’d probably only see the relative competitive letdown of an NHL all-star game.
Instead of seeing players grasp drastically at ways to make all-star games competitively intriguing, we’re going to get a true game of all-stars, and perhaps, a miracle upset or two that propels relative hockey lightweight countries to heights they’d never imagined possible.
So yes, give us NHL Olympic Participation, and give us lots of it. It’s no wonder NHLers always make clear their desire to play in Olympic Games. Any one of them who has participated knows how important it will be to their careers. They’ll all go to China with big goals and much determination, and only one group will come home with gold medals.
That’s worth watching, wouldn’t you say?