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You Don't Need NHLers to Produce a Compelling Olympic Hockey Tournament

The 2018 tournament was largely ignored by NHL hockey fans, but it produced dramatic storylines and a crazy championship game. The 2022 can do that again, but you just got to give it a chance.
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At the time of writing this, the NHL and NHLPA haven't officially backed out of Beijing.

It's expected, though, that the news will come sometime today, and it's not exactly surprising. It had to be done, period. Whether you're looking at it from a COVID-19 or political perspective, the NHL's participation - while nice - was always going to be tainted in this year's tournament. 

It's worth giving the men's Olympic tournament a chance, though.

Most people wrote off the 2018 edition because the best players weren't there. For an Olympic event, you want the best of the best. But Pyeongchang still created some incredible moments. There was real competition for the title: the Olympic Athletes of Russia were definitely the favorites, and ultimately won gold. But they lost to Slovakia in the opening game of the tournament, and Slovenia - a team that only made it through the qualification round - came second in a three-way tiebreaker in Group B after beating the United States. Germany, a team that avoided last place in Group C because of a shootout win over Norway, came second. Canada, the team that likely would have cruised to gold had NHL participation happened, only won bronze. 

Was it the best hockey? No. But was it competitive? Absolutely. Think back to 2014, a tournament that didn't have a ton of drama for the championship-winning Canadians, other than a close battle against Latvia. The 2018 tournament had that same drama for the big-dogs every night, and it resulted in quite the event.

But for North American fans, it was hard to get excited about. A 14-hour time difference meant watching games and waking up for work the next day was impossible, and the NHL was still playing in its normal time slots. 

The average fan might not care about the emotional attachment that just playing in the tournament means for so many of these players. While 2018 provided the chance for players such as Troy Terry and Kirill Kaprizov to show their future NHL teams what they're capable of, the majority of the players were never going to have a shot at the NHL, or the Olympics, ever again. The moment was special, but fans want the best possible action. They wanted McDavid, Crosby and Ovechkin, not Hager, Roy and Noreau.

Stars were born. Maybe not global international stars like you'd expect, but new cult heroes for individual teams. That's good for them, and maybe not important to other fanbases, but like Crosby was in 2010 for Canada, Kaprizov was for Russia in 2018. 

And from a competition point, the overall talent spread becomes much smaller when you knock off future Hockey Hall of Famers. The fact that Germany fought for its lives to make the final against a favored Canadian team shows that anything can happen when a medal is on the line. Germany, who was only in because of a last-ditch Olympic qualification tournament, didn't have an easy road to silver, but played good when it mattered.

Canada and USA won't have their best players available to them, but they'll have a mix of players from European pro leagues, the AHL and maybe some NCAA and CHL talent, too. On principle, they should have stronger teams than the majority of the lineups in Beijing -- but 2018 proved that doesn't matter if you can't come together well enough as a group.

But, right now, you have to wonder: will the "replacement" players want to be there in the first place? If a player contracts COVID while in China, they could face up to a five-week quarantine time. For players on smaller European salaries, they can't afford missing league action to sit alone in a foreign country. NHLers didn't like that, and rightfully so, but the impact could be far greater for those not making millions to play the sport.

Many might not care: they know the opportunity is too great to pass up, and, like in 2018, you never know if a chance like this will occur again. That passion for the game -- many know this is the biggest stage they'll ever reach -- can shine through at a time like this.

It's definitely disappointing that the world's best players won't be able to play next February and, hopefully, 2026 eventually provides us that opportunity after waiting since 2014. In a normal year, this would have all been doable, but too many stars fell out of the sky to force the situation we're in.

So, at the very least, give the tournament a chance if you're able to. It's not the same, but it's still should be good. The half-day difference between time zones will be tough, but it could be rewarding if you like competitive, tight hockey action.

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