You probably know this by now, but when the puck drops next week in Gangneung, South Korea, there will be no current NHL players on the ice. And whether it’s the NHL’s fault for being overly cautious and stingy or the International Olympic Committee’s fault for being stubborn — to be sure, it’s a mix of both — the fact remains the same: Pyeongchang 2018 will be the first Winter Olympics since Lillehammer ’94 not to feature a men’s ice hockey tournament stocked with players from the world’s best hockey league.
The dearth of North American household names in the men’s tournament has a lot of people wondering if the games will even be worth watching. Every game will be contested while Americans and Canadians are about to go to sleep, are already asleep or are just waking from sleep. North Americans have been forced to ask themselves some important questions, such as: Is it really worth sacrificing sleep to watch a bunch of players you’ve never heard of battle it out for gold? And who are these guys anyway?
This decision by the NHL, of course, makes Olympic hockey closer to what it was for decades when the league didn’t release its professionals. In 1980 in Lake Placid, the U.S. rallied behind a bunch of largely anonymous kids from the ranks of college hockey, and it became the country’s greatest Olympic moment. So maybe this is a good thing?
A closer look at the rosters in South Korea this month will put a damper on such optimism. Teams are not exclusively bringing a collection of their brightest youngsters from the amateur ranks. They’re bringing something else: players plucked from the NHL scrap heap.
You might think that the exclusion of the NHL would bring the average age of Team USA down from previous years, but the 2018 roster is older on average than those from Sochi in 2014 and Vancouver in 2010 — 29.4 versus 27 and 26.6, respectively. In fact, this is the third-oldest Team USA roster in the past 38 years.
Many of these players have passed their prime, like Team USA stalwart Brian Gionta, who has more than 1,000 career NHL games on his resume. Others are simply out of NHL work: James Wisniewski, who last played significant NHL minutes in 2014-15, was released by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2016 after failing to impress on a tryout contract. He’s playing abroad now — in the second tier of the German league.
To be fair, much of the age disparity can be accounted for by the fact that those early rosters had to be comprised of amateurs, which largely meant college players.1 And it’s not as though those kids were stiffs — the 1988 team alone boasted players like Brian Leetch, Chris Terreri, Kevin Stevens, Craig Janney, Tony Granato and Mike Richter. The 2018 team features some college players who have the potential to go on and have fruitful NHL careers — Harvard’s Ryan Donato, for example — but the majority of the roster is made up of guys who’ll never get another sniff (or never got a sniff at all).
This trend is worldwide: Each team has at least one skater with NHL experience on its roster, and six teams (Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Russia, Sweden and the United States) can count at least 1,000 combined NHL games played in their ranks. In total, the tournament boasts a combined 17,419 NHL games played.
No current NHLers, plenty of former NHLers
Olympic rosters with the most NHL experience and points accumulated
|Total IN NHL|
|Olympic Athlete from Russia||2,565||1,955|
Team Canada leads the way with 2,140 NHL points and 5,444 NHL games among their Olympians. Those numbers may seem impressive until you realize that the equivalent numbers from the Canadian team in Sochi — the one with Sidney Crosby and Co. — were 8,400 NHL points and 12,936 NHL games.2
The Olympic rosters are clearly lacking star power. The one exception is the roster for Team Russia — er, Team Olympic Athlete from Russia — which boasts two forwards who each played more than 800 NHL games and scored more than 800 career NHL points: Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.
Kovalchuk is a former Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner, and Datsyuk won three consecutive Frank J. Selke Trophies between 2008 and 2010 as the league’s best two-way forward. Each Russian has some very good hockey left in his legs. They’re also the reason the Russians are the odds on favorites to win the tournament.
Team Russia is also bringing Kontinental Hockey League star Sergei Mozyakin along to South Korea. Aside from current NHL sniper Alexander Radulov, no other player has won the KHL scoring title in the past decade. The KHL isn’t exactly the NHL, but it’s not exactly a beer league either: It’s the world’s second best hockey league, and 91 of the tournament’s 300 players currently play there. Russia’s games alone should be reason enough to tune in next week.
As for the rest? Among the non-KHL cadre, 203 players play across 17 professional leagues spread throughout North America, Europe and Asia; five play NCAA Division 1 hockey; and one — Gionta — is currently not playing any competitive hockey at all. Some teams rewarded players who choose to play their professional hockey on home soil: Every Russian player plays in the KHL, every South Korean player plays in Asia League Ice Hockey, and every Swiss player plays in the National League.3
But other teams seem to prefer a more well-rounded bunch: The U.S. roster features players from seven professional leagues and a handful of college studs.4 And the Slovenian roster features players from 11 leagues across Europe — from the Alps Hockey League to the Czech Extraliga (they know how to score pretty in the Czech Extraliga) to all three divisions of professional German hockey.5
The NHL’s absence dictates that this won’t be the deepest or most talented group of hockey men ever assembled at an Olympics, but those North Americans willing to stay up late or wake up early will get to see a lot of players they’d never otherwise get to see.