The NHL became entwined with the Olympics before young stars like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Auston Matthews even pulled on a pair of skates.
Nagano in 1998 started a string of five consecutive Olympics featuring NHL players, a tradition that became so routine that young players around the world added dreams of winning a gold medal to their hopes of someday lifting the Stanley Cup.
"I’ve always been alive in the days where the NHL teams allow their players to go to the Olympics," Eichel said. "I’ve had a lot of good memories watching the Olympics and seeing a lot of great players play, so it’s something you’ve always looked up to."
There’s nothing to look forward to this time: Instead of going to South Korea this winter to play for their home countries, NHL players face an 82-game season that will keep right on going on during the Olympics. The Games will instead include a mix of players from the minors, colleges and Europe.
"It’s going to be weird for everybody," said Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, who was hoping to make Canada’s Olympic team. "It won’t feel right watching other guys wear that maple leaf and they’re good players, but they’re not the best players in the world at that tournament. Whoever wins it, hopefully Canada wins it. That’d be awesome. But it just won’t feel the same. They’re not world champions, technically, because they’re not the best players."
Almost six months since the league announced it would skip the Pyeongchang Olympics, most of the NHL’s best players are resigned to their missed opportunity. That Canada won’t have Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews to go for the three-peat, that McDavid, Matthews and Eichel won’t make their Olympic debuts quite yet.
Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin, who was vocal about saying he’d go no matter what, said last month that he and other players have never had to choose between their NHL teams and the Olympics, and "should not have to be in position to make this choice." Washington Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov said after not making the team for Sochi that he thought about signing in the Kontinental Hockey League so he could play in Korea, while countryman Vladimir Tarasenko simply expressed frustration that a lifelong dream and a chance at Russia’s first Olympic gold with NHL players was snatched away.
"It’s very disappointing you’re not going to have the chance to be there when we have as short of careers as we do," Swedish defenceman and Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson said. "It’s going to be some guys’ only opportunity to go and they’re not going to be able to since it’s not our decision to not attend."
That decision belonged to NHL owners, who saw no tangible benefit from stopping the season for over two weeks to let players take part in the Olympics.
"The fact of the matter is, we find the Olympics incredibly disruptive with no positive benefit, no opportunity to promote our presence or anything else of the Olympic experience," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We have enough experience to understand what the Olympics represents. The people who suggest that somehow this is an opportunity to grow the game, it didn’t grow the game in Japan, it didn’t grow the game in Italy."
The league believes playing exhibition games in China and regular-season games in Sweden does more to grow the game than the Olympics. But NBC Sports, which has the league’s national television rights, will instead be showing the Olympics this February with no NHL games scheduled on its networks between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25, the day of the gold-medal game, and the trade deadline set for Feb. 26.
During that time, New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh expects teammates to root for their countries. Considering the 13-hour difference from the Eastern time zone (noon ET is 1 a.m. the following day in Pyeongchang), it may be difficult for players to watch, but many will try.
"Like any fan of sport I like to watch the Olympics, so I’ll definitely be paying attention to it," McDavid said.
Two-time U.S. Olympian Patrick Kane said he will be interested to see which players are chosen.
A lot of players have friends or former teammates in the running to make a national team, which adds a silver lining to the bitter disappointment.
"There’s going to be a couple guys that I know who are going who maybe would not have had an opportunity to play in the Olympics ever," Rangers defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I’ll be pulling for them, but it’s almost going to be like a world juniors situation where you’re rooting for your team and you’re rooting for your country, but you wish you were there to participate. It’s going to be cool to see them in that light, but I wish I was there with them."
The possibility certainly exists that the NHL returns to Olympic competition in 2022 in Beijing and goes again in 2026, especially if the Games are in North America. That’s a concern for another year, and McDonagh expects the importance of this season and playoff races will be ample distraction come February.
"It might be a little bit of a unique situation," McDonagh said. "As soon as you get into that game-day routine and stuff, your focus will kind of take over and take care of itself and you’ll understand the importance of what’s in front of you here and not wishful thinking of what could be."