by Jimmy Vitali
Olympic hockey has been on fire in the past week. The American women came away with gold for the first time since Nagano 1998, ending Canada’s 20-year streak. The game went down to the wire, as Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson scored the shootout winner six rounds in. Canada’s dominance began in 2002 when they bested the United States in Salt Lake City.
The streak-snapping win was reminiscent of Team USA’s miracle on ice in 1980. The red-hot Soviet team went into Lake Placid, also winning four consecutive gold medals. The gold medal is especially gratifying the women of Team USA, as they were bested by Canada in 2002, 2010 and 2014 in the final games.
This win holds significance for a team that constantly appeared to be second best. U.S. women hockey legend Hilary Knight, was on two silver medal teams, in Vancouver and Sochi, and combined for 15 points in both tournaments. Knight led the team through Sochi, but came up short in overtime to the Canadians. Enacting this revenge makes this gold medal mean so much more.
The men’s Canadian hockey team had its share of heartbreak as well. The usually high-powered Canadian team was upset by Germany, who failed to make the games in Sochi. The most obvious reason would be the NHL has banned its players from competing at the Olympics for the first time since 1998.
The athletes that play in the NHL are overwhelmingly Canadian, nearly 46 percent. The NHL’s decision to no longer allow them into Olympic competition severely hurt their roster. The usual band of NHL all-stars had been replaced with former NHL role-players; people who had either aged out, washed out or never worked out.
The German team, however, looked quite young and stable compared to the Canadians. Germany utilized two former NHLers, Christian Ehrhoff and Marcel Goc, but kept their team mostly focused on discipline and competition. They quickly overmatched Canada to jump out to a 3-0 lead.
The decision by the NHL to keep its players at home was ultimately what cost the Canadian team. It also stifled the Americans, Finnish and Swedish who all went home without medals, despite being countries that regularly produce professional-level talent.
The lack of NHL players did end up giving a huge assist to the Olympic Athletes from Russia. Russia is home to the second-largest hockey league in the world, the Kontinental Hockey League. Over 600 Russians play in the KHL including all-time and single-season high-scorer Sergei Mozyakin, who has nearly 600 points in his nine-year career. They also boast several homesick former NHLers, who felt the need to come home. Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk combined for over 1,700 points before retiring back to the motherland.
The NHL should continue to hold its players back. It is clear that the NHL did not want its players hurt playing in a tournament that doesn’t make them any money, and that makes total sense. The new feel and unpredictability hurt some perennial powerhouses, but after some adjusting, the next Olympic should feature even more competition.