BUFFALO, N.Y. – When even Mike Babcock doesn’t take a swing at a target he’s been hammering for over a year you know the Toronto Maple Leafs have closed ranks.
Understandable given what’s at stake for them during this final week of the regular season, but unclear when trying decipher how significant the news of the day really was for them.
This is big-picture stuff – the NHL’s announcement that it won’t permit players to attend the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics – and a team like the Leafs should theoretically be Ground Zero for the conversation about opportunity lost.
They have a dressing room populated with the next frontier of impact players, with Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner the kind of guys Carey Price was talking about when he said: “I feel like we’re short changing some of the younger players that haven’t had that opportunity.”
Babcock clearly had more on his mind that he opted to say following a 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. The man who coached Team Canada to consecutive Olympic golds let out a long sigh when the subject was broached at KeyBank Center.
“This is what I’m going to do: I’m just going to tell you I’m disappointed,” he said. “We play (Washington) tomorrow and that’s where my focus is.”
Fortunately, he’s offered plenty of thoughtful opinion on the subject already.
Like this, from March 20: “I think it’s really important (we go). I think getting your name on the Stanley Cup is something you dream about, and playing for your country in the Olympics – playing best-on-best – there’s no better event. Just there is none. So to have that opportunity, I think it’s important. I think it’s important to showcase your game every year – just not to pick and choose when it’s your turn and you’d like to go. I think it’s important, but I don’t own any teams.”
Or this, from Sept. 27, while he was in the middle of coaching Team Canada to victory at the World Cup: “I like the opportunity to represent your country where the heat is on you and you have to deliver. I think that’s a huge part of the Olympic Games. The other thing is the World Cup is great, (but) it’s not the Olympics. Let’s not get confused.”
The Leafs youngsters have also been asked about Olympic participation at various points throughout the year and indicated a desire to go.
How badly – or not – we’ll probably never truly know.
They are on the precipice of accomplishing something few thought they could do, with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth as soon as Tuesday night. They each read from the same script when facing questions from reporters here, and it quickly became obvious that this was no place or time to get to the heart of the matter.
“Of course you want to go represent your country,” said Matthews, when asked his third Olympic-themed question. “I’ve been fortunate to do it in the past at different tournaments, but like I said a couple times, it’s not really on my mind right now.”
“I haven’t really thought about it,” said Nylander. “Today I was just focused on watching my brother (Alex) play (his first NHL game for Buffalo) and having fun.”
If they are bothered by it deep down, there will be others to speak for them.
The NHL Players’ Association issued a lengthy ominous-toned release – “NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly,” it read in part. “A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters” – and plenty of others around the league aired grievances.
Matthews was a central figure on the wildly popular Team North America at the World Cup, which essentially stole the show back in September. It could be a long time before we see him or Sabres star forward Jack Eichel back in best-on-best competition, with another World Cup not expected before 2020.
They would have been fixtures on a Team USA more than capable of winning gold in South Korea next February, but alas they won’t be granted the opportunity to even try.
“It’s a little bit disappointing, obviously, as a player who takes pride in representing his country and who’s done it before,” said Eichel. “I think I can only speak for myself, I think it’s something the players in the NHL look forward to, and as a young kid just breaking into the league, it’s something I definitely watched growing up and looked forward to every year. … Obviously, as a league, we’re trying to grow our game all over the world and make it more popular. I think the Olympics is a good way to do it.
“I can’t comment on the NHL’s decision. I know there’s probably guys who are frustrated with it and a little bit disappointed.”