Damien Cox: NHL players at Beijing Olympics is a win for hockey fans and the NHLPA

Canada

So we’ll finally get to see Connor McDavid in a Team Canada jersey. Not as a teenager this time, but as the NHL’s marquee player.

That’s good. Who wouldn’t want to see that? How about McDavid on a line with Brayden Point and Mitch Marner?

Auston Matthews will lead the American Olympic team for the first time, Elias Pettersson will star for Team Sweden and Andrei Vasilevskiy will try to bring gold to Russia. Hockey writers and broadcasters now get several months of madly fantasizing over the makeup of each country’s roster, easy fodder for the media and something hockey fans love to debate.

This is all good.

The process of getting NHL players to China this winter, however, has left much to be desired. Indeed, the league’s release just before noon on Friday that an agreement had been concluded that would return the NHL to the Olympic “family” for the first time since Sochi in 2014 was anything but triumphant or inspiring. It was terse, and unenthusiastic, which makes sense since Gary Bettman has made it absolutely clear NHL owners are participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics against their will.

They just don’t feel the NHL gets enough out of the entire process, and it’s hard to say they’re wrong. Interrupting the business of the NHL’s regular season after two COVID-scarred campaigns to send players overseas while the coronavirus still rages is not something the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball would embrace, so it’s not surprising NHL owners aren’t thrilled about it.

Advocates say it’s about “growing the game,” which is just so much nonsense. If the past 18 months have demonstrated anything, it’s that North American hockey has a lot of work to do growing the game among various minorities and ethnic communities at home before it starts exporting the pursuit of a hunk of rubber on frozen water.

But back to the Olympics we go. Sochi was a bore, but Vancouver was great in 2010, and maybe this time around will be great as well. The women’s world championships over the past two weeks in Calgary demonstrated just how dramatic international hockey can be.

For Canadian hockey fans, there are many wonderful memories from international hockey events. Mostly, however, they are created by events that Canada wins, and not so much by competitions like the ’74 WHA Summit Series, the 1996 World Cup and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

That said, the guess here is that if you polled Canadian hockey fans, a majority would support seeing best-on-best competition. Not to “grow the game,” but for entertainment purposes. Great hockey is great hockey, and the Olympics has produced some great hockey since the NHL began to send its players in 1998. With the NHL having all but abandoned the international game since the 2016 World Cup, you could argue there is a good deal of anticipation for a 2022 competition that will be dominated mostly by players who didn’t participate in the Olympics eight years ago.

Canada won the gold medal in men’s hockey at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

So we have an entirely new cast of characters, albeit likely with the usual rankings when it comes to the countries most likely to win a medal. Canada will go in as the favourite, with the U.S., Sweden and Russia following in some order. It’s possible the plucky Finns will knock off one of the big boys, and the last time the Winter Games were in Asia and the NHL participated, the Czech Republic took the gold.

Wayne Gretzky sure remembers that tournament.

This has all been a nice political victory for the oft-criticized NHL Players’ Association. Hockey’s union has only occasionally been helpful to fans of the game, but in this case NHL players have quite clearly been the stakeholders who have stood up and consistently demanded that the NHL should participate in the Olympics. Only a small slice of the union actually has to fly to China, and the rest go on vacation. But the NHLPA has fought for this, and in so doing has positioned itself very effectively on the side of the game and creating elite hockey competitions for fans to watch.

So score one for Donald Fehr and his organization. The union may have screwed up before by not including an Olympic guarantee in previous collective bargaining agreements, but NHL players have positioned themselves very effectively as being on the side of best-on-best hockey competitions.

Theoretically, this could all come at a very useful time for the NHL after losing hundreds of millions of dollars during the pandemic. While the break in the 2021-22 to accommodate travel and the Olympic hockey tournament won’t help the gate in U.S. cities where the NHL struggles for attention and customers, seeing Mikko Rantanen go up against his teammate Nathan MacKinnon or debating whether Sidney Crosby and Carey Price should get one more shot at the Olympics should create a good deal of much-needed fan interest.

In a perfect world, the NHL would either get in or get out of the Olympics for good, and if it is to be an Olympic participant, would show more excitement about the overall enterprise. Reluctance is not particularly helpful when it comes to creating inspiring moments that past Olympics have created and could do so again.

It’s hard to say, meanwhile, whether international hockey is ever going to be as spicy as it was pre-1990 when the Russians, Czechs and Slovaks were on the other side of the Iron Curtain. That said, perhaps this can be the beginning of a new era for the NHL in the global game, even if it’s just with the Olympics every four years and that’s it.

One can be cynical and sarcastic about the Olympic movement. It deserves it. At the same time, we can now look forward to an outstanding international hockey competition in six months time with the best players in the world.

Winter suddenly looks a little less daunting.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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