But it wasn’t a bluff. Fans were furious; players were furious. After the anger, the question: Is it worth watching?
I’ve struggled with that question. I’m old enough to remember Olympics tournaments from the days before N.H.L. players arrived; they were fun, unpredictable and often wildly dramatic. The 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory by the United States over the Soviet Union still ranks as one of the most famous moments in the sports history. To this day, kids on ponds around the world still try to pull off Peter Forsberg’s one-handed shootout move from the 1994 Sweden-Canada gold-medal game.
On the other hand, once you’ve had the best, going back to something else feels underwhelming. It’s tempting to write the whole thing off.
But I don’t think I will. This year’s tournament won’t feature the best, but there are plenty of fascinating stories to follow. Few of them ever expected to have an Olympic opportunity, and for most, this will be their one and only shot.
Team U.S.A. will come in with heavy hearts but plenty of inspiration after the team’s general manager, Jim Johannson, the longtime national program executive, died unexpectedly on Sunday at age 53. And while the roster he built isn’t quite the ragtag squad of underdogs that won the hearts of Americans in 1980, they’re not far off.
The captain is 39-year-old Brian Gionta, the diminutive forward last seen finishing out his N.H.L. career on some miserable Sabres teams. There’s Chris Bourque, son of the Hall of Fame Bruins defenseman Ray, and several college players, including Boston University’s Jordan Greenway, who’ll become the first African-American to represent the United States in Olympic hockey. And there’s Bobby Butler, a minor leaguer and former N.H.L. winger who warmed hearts when a video of him telling his dad he would be playing for Team U.S.A. went viral.
That’s not Auston Matthews or Patrick Kane. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Team Canada fans hoping to see Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid will have to settle for names like former N.H.L.ers Derek Roy and Mason Raymond. Or they can root for the defenseman Chay Genoway: An undrafted long shot, he dreamed of making the N.H.L., and he did — for just a single game, in 2012. That’s one better than Mat Robinson, who never made it at all, and neither did the team’s oldest player, 37-year-old Chris Lee.
Then there’s goaltender Ben Scrivens, an undrafted Cornell graduate who spent almost his entire five-year N.H.L. career playing in three of Canada’s most high-pressure markets — Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal. He built a devoted fan base through a thoughtful social media presence, and his wife, Jenny, was a goaltender for the New York Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League.
Unlike the members of previous Team Canada rosters, these guys don’t have N.H.L. playoff races to return to when it’s over. Instead, they’ll be playing in easily the most important games of their careers. In a way, that feels like what the Olympics should be.
The Czech team will be captained by Martin Erat, a veteran forward who played almost 900 N.H.L. games. But he’s probably best remembered by the league’s fans for something he had no control over — a disastrous 2013 trade in which the Washington Capitals gave up their best prospect to acquire him. That prospect, Filip Forsberg (no relation to Peter), is now one of the league’s best young forwards, while Erat has been out of the league for almost three years. As a 24-year-old in 2006, Erat was on the last Czech team to win a medal. Now, at 36, he gets one last bid for glory.
And if you really can’t get excited about Olympic hockey without the presence of genuine N.H.L. star power, there’s always Team Sweden. Their roster will feature the teenage phenom Rasmus Dahlin, a ridiculously skilled defenseman expected to go first overall in the next N.H.L. draft. At 17 years old, he’ll be the fifth youngest player to ever appear in the men’s Olympic tournament.
There’s no point pretending that any of it will feel like Matthews vs. McDavid, or Crosby bearing down on Henrik Lundqvist with a gold medal on the line. But the N.H.L.’s decision to pack up its pucks and go home has left both a void and an opportunity. The players looking to fill it aren’t the best in the world or even all that close; many of them will make less over the course of their careers than Crosby or Kane take home in a month.
It won’t be the same, and we know that. But it might be two weeks of triumph and heartbreak and yes, maybe even a minor miracle or two.
That should be enough. I’ll be watching to find out.