The NHL's relationship with the Olympics has been pebbly, to say the least.
From not going until 1998, to not going in 2018 and later pulling out of 2022, it's been a challenge getting the world's top players together in the same place for a true best-on-best experience.
It seems like our best chance of making this a reality is reviving the World Cup of Hockey, but it needs to be a consistent event. It needs to be something everyone buys into, and not because you've decided to take NHL participation away from the event the players truly want.
The 12 participating Olympic teams need replacement players now on short notice, even if the NHL pulling out isn't exactly the most surprising news. For a lot of teams, their plans don't change too much and use other tournaments to evaluate talent. But it still won't be the same without McDavid, Crosby, Ovechkin, Matthews, Pastrnak and others putting on a show each night.
Ideally, the NHL would send its best players every time without fail. But we know the league doesn't want this, despite the player's best interests, so why keep playing cat and mouse every few years?
Naturally, people have wondered: what about sending the top U-20 to the Olympics?
That's not really an option this time around, since there are a few teams in the WJC that didn't qualify for Beijing. But for the future? Hey, might be worth a try. Replace the WJC every four years and use the previous year's event to pick the top two teams, and promote the top two from Division IA.
It's not that crazy of a concept, right? Well, maybe, but if we're really being truthful with ourselves, as fun as it would be, the overall talent would be a downgrade.
The World Junior Championship showcases the best young talent of the game, but we're still talking "young" talent here. Most of the players that play pro play limited roles with their club teams, compared to most of the "replacement" Olympic players being top-liners. Canada, for example, has had mixed results playing against Canadian university players in exhibition games over the past decade, and none of them are real Olympic targets until turning pro. Teams want their best shot at winning gold, and sending full junior teams wouldn't accomplish that goal.
Still, even after looking at all of that, it's still a cool idea that could be a ton of fun.
The Youth Olympic Games already exist, pitting the best U-16 players in the world for their first real shot at gold with their respective nations. It's the only U-16 event that Canada and USA play in, for example, so it's a unique experience. Wouldn't it be cool to see those same players near the end of their development cycle playing again on an even bigger stage?
The college-aged Miracle on Ice team from 1980 is still regarded as USA's most famous hockey team. Would a 2022 team with Matthews, Patrick Kane, Jack Eichel and Connor Hellebuyck invoke a bigger reaction due to the star power? Probably not. So a tournament with younger stars that have NHL ties could be huge for future marketability. Imagine if Connor Bedard scored the game-winning goal at the age of 16, two years before he was set to make his NHL debut? Or Matty Beniers becoming an instant legend in Seattle before ever putting on a Kraken jersey? There would still be pride in NHL teams being able to brag about their young talent without risking their current contracted players.
Of the 12 teams qualified for the 2022 Olympic games, Denmark, Latvia and China don't have teams in the top World Junior Championship circuit, and Austria didn't qualify for the men's event. But Latvia finished 12th (second in Division IA), so they wouldn't be too far off from being worthy. Denmark came 5th, avoiding relegation from Division IA, so they'd likely miss out, but they spent around half a decade in the top group before getting relegated in 2020. China wouldn't come close and could be moved out in favor of Belarus, who earned the top spot, and Austria made the Olympics in 2014, so it's not like they're a total longshot.
Again, not perfect. But something manageable, and something that might force teams to work even harder on developing young talent to ensure they get an Olympic berth every four years. Maybe it's what helps set these smaller teams up for success in the long run, who knows?
It could also help boost the World Championship, in a way. For the players that would otherwise fill non-NHL spots, it would be the only chance for them to play in a top men's national team event. For NHLers, it's a chance to keep representing your country, knowing the opportunities are more limited. It's not ideal, but it's something.
Do I think it'll ever happen, or even should happen? Not really. I don't think penalizing teams because their top players aged out is a good thing. Let's showcase the global development of the participating nations, and not because they had one top prospect go on a tear in Division IA. Plus, there are rights issues and other details that clouds the options, and it effectively eliminates a large number of teams that don't have junior programs. Not like teams like Singapore or Malaysia are real threats to make it anyways, but there's still optics around it. Teams like to show off their current top men's talent any time they can, so this would defeat that whole purpose.
But would it be fun? Heck yes. Let's have a better 2022, and stay safe.