Veale column: Olympics will survive without NHL players
The Olympic men's hockey tournament begins Wednesday morning and will be defined for some time not by the players who are there but the ones who aren't.
The NHL refused to suspend its season and release its players for the tournament, leaving rosters to be filled by amateurs and players from professional European leagues. NBC isn't even sending Doc Emrick to do the broadcasts.
For a league that has shown no remorse marring two seasons in the last 15 years with lockouts, it would be easy to add another black mark to commissioner Gary Bettman's ledger. At this point, I'm not sure if he can be booed any louder at the Stanley Cup Final.
That said, keeping the NHL out of this tournament is an unfortunate but logically defensible decision. Further, it may create some interesting opportunities in both the short and long terms.
NHL players did not participate in the Olympics before 1998. Pros couldn't play in the Olympics before 1988, which helped those Soviet hockey teams (whose players were officially in the part of the Red Army where they played hockey all day) run roughshod over all but two Olympics from 1956 to 1988 (you probably know which two).
The NHL's return on its investment has been mixed: In 2002 (Salt Lake City) and 2010 (Vancouver, British Columbia), they hit their jackpot, a USA-Canada final; in 2006 (Turin), they ended up with Sweden-Finland; and in 1998 (Nagano, Japan) not only did the Czech Republic-Russia gold medal game start at 10:45 p.m. Central time but the American team didn't exactly do its part in public relations by trashing several rooms in the Olympic Village on the way out.
For the NHL and its owners, Pyeongchang wasn't looking too optimistic. Start times will range from 9:10 p.m. to 6:10 a.m. (Central) in a country that has produced exactly two NHL players, with the latter (ex-Minnesota Wild Richard Park) last appearing in the league in 2012.
The International Olympic Committee strictly prohibits outside marketing and symbols related to the Games, so the league would be paying for and insuring its assets to play in a tournament that will gain the league low media exposure and zero revenue, but all the injuries still count.
It's a calloused approach, but as the old cliché goes, professional hockey is a business.
Would I like to see NHL players in the Olympics? You bet, but we can live without it.
First of all, several great Olympic hockey moments have happened without NHL players. 1960 and 1980 aside, there's the U.S silver medal in Sapporo (1972), hot goaltender Ray LeBlanc leading the Americans into the medal round in 1992, and Peter Forsberg's one-handed shootout winner for Sweden vs. Canada in the 1994 gold medal game.
It is also worth noting that the secondary hockey venue in Lillehammer that year was the Gjovik Cavern Hall, which is exactly what it sounds like: a hockey arena carved into a freaking cave!
The Kontinental Hockey League (Russia) will, after significant debate, send its players, so the "Russian" team with Ilya Kovalchuk and what's left of Pavel Datsyuk, is a strong favorite.
The United States' hodgepodge of young prospects (like St. Cloud State's Will Borgen and Denver's Troy Terry) and 'seasoned veterans' (like ex-NHLer Brian Gionta) is not ballyhooed but if they do rally for a medal or even beat the "Russians" in the preliminary round Saturday morning, they could claim an underdog mantle not available to a squad featuring Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter.
And if not, I'm sure Team USA has snagged another snowboarding gold and the Stanley Cup playoffs start in two months.