NHL players missing out on all the Olympic 'fun,' but still tuning in to watch
'Obviously I'm rooting for Sweden,' says Rangers star goalie Henrik Lundqvist
By Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press
The games are on late so they can't see them all, but National Hockey League players are keeping an eye on the Olympics.
Many players were disappointed that the NHL's top talent is missing from the sport's biggest international showcase, but they're still cheering on the patched-together squads competing in at the Winter Games in South Korea. They are the first Games without full NHL participation since 1994.
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"Every time I turn the TV on it seems like I'm watching figure skating," Vancouver Canucks defenceman Erik Gudbranson said. "I've seen some highlights and I think I saw one period of a couple of teams.
"It's good hockey. It's a little different style than what we would play. It's still fun to watch."
Many of the players at the Olympics were once NHL regulars, like Rene Bourque, Derek Roy or Wojtek Wolski for Canada, who are now skating in European leagues. Canada will be hard-pressed to win a third Olympic gold medal in a row in men's hockey, but the levelling factor is that other countries are missing their best players too.
Top stars absent
"These are guys that have played their whole career and have done a lot of good things for the game and are very good hockey players," said Gudbranson. "For them to be in the limelight — it's disappointing the NHL is not there but those guys are representing Canada and the rest of the world very well."
It's a step down from the past five Winter Games, where the sport's elite clashed. There is no Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid for Canada taking on the world's best like Sweden's Erik Karlsson, Russia's Alex Ovechkin or American Patrick Kane.
But it's competitive hockey and their NHL brethren are watching. Canada will not be the clear favourite against Finland in a quarter-final on Wednesday that it would have been.
"I watched Canada [Friday] before bed," said Ottawa Senators forward Derick Brassard. "The guys worked really hard and were physical — it was a physical game.
"It's good to see one of our former teammates [Chris Kelly] being the captain of the team. It's fun to watch. I watch the girls also and Canada-U.S. is always a great showdown. Hopefully they can bring back the gold medal. I'm a fan of the game so I wish I could see Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby playing on the same team, but it is what it is. Those guys have a chance to go and I'm sure they're going to represent the country well."
'It's fun, it's the Olympics'
It is not just Canadians watching.
"It's fun, it's the Olympics," said Karlsson, Ottawa's star defenceman. "It's different to be on the other side of the TV, but at the same time it's exciting and you know how much it means for the guys that are there and what's at stake.
"There have been some upsets and I think it's going to be a good tournament moving forward."
Upsets include a tournament opening 3-2 loss by the U.S. against Slovenia and the Slovakia's 3-2 win over the Olympic Athletes From Russia, who include former NHL stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has another reason to stay up late — his identical twin brother Joel plays for Sweden.
"It would be fun to be there," said Lundqvist. "Obviously I'm rooting for Sweden."
But Blake Wheeler, the Winnipeg Jets' scoring leader, said missing the Games is like a Catch-22.
"You always love representing your country," said Wheeler, an American. "I had a great experience in Sochi (2014).
"That being said, it is a sacrifice. I've got three young kids and I don't mind spending the extra time with them either. Had we gone and I was invited, I would have been thrilled about it. But to be here with my family, I'm not all that disappointed about it either."
Back for 2020?
There is hope that the NHL will be back for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
Hockey with its brightest stars was a hit with players and fans in Nagano, Japan in 1998, Salt Lake City in 2002, Turin, Italy in 2006, Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. This time, the league balked at interrupting its schedule to send players to the Games without any financial return, but hasn't ruled out going to China.
For now, players who some consider cast-offs are getting their shot at Olympic glory.
"I think it's pretty cool that the guys that went have that opportunity," said the Rangers' Rick Nash, who won Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014. "They look like they're having fun.
"The hockey is fast. It's pretty good checking hockey. But I think what everyone looks forward to every four years is NHLers to be in the Olympics, especially in the States — how much it grows the game when you have a Canada-U.S. match-up. So I think it's unfortunate NHLers aren't there."