Brunt: Savour Sochi, hockey fans…

Paul Chiasson/CP

All signs point to NHL players not being in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Games. And it just won’t be the same.

If it ends here, as it almost surely will, with Canada’s clinical triumph over Sweden in the gold-medal game, guard that memory. You’ll want to tell your grandchildren about it, and not just because of who won.

There was a time, between 1998 and 2014, when the NHL allowed its players to participate in the Olympics, and if you loved the sport, there was nothing better.

It was a win-win proposition, at least at the start.

The International Olympic Committee, along with its television rights–holders and its sponsors, reaped the benefits of having professionals involved in the most important team sport in the Winter Games. Just as when the NBA players arrived in Barcelona in 1992, the stars added an element of sex appeal to the familiar cast of fresh-faced heroes.

For the NHL, with its struggles to establish the sport outside its
traditional geographic boundaries and its self-destructive habit of regular, unnecessary labour shutdowns, showcasing its product on a global stage made sense, even if it wasn’t getting a piece of the action. That was especially true when two of the first three Olympics in the new millennium were being staged in North America, requiring minimal disruption and offering favourable time zones for maximum exposure.

The potential risks—that the Olympics would make the World Cup of Hockey irrelevant; that the Stanley Cup playoffs might seem second-rate next to an all-star tournament with gold medals on the line; that their most valuable assets might get hurt—were absolutely worth taking.

As the Sochi Games approached,  though, there was no mistaking the creeping grumpiness on the NHL side. The players still wanted to go—the Russians especially, this time—but the team owners, who really call the shots, were muted in their enthusiasm about a tournament in an exotic, potentially dangerous locale, with some games played in the wee hours of the North American morning, and with not a single nickel headed their way.

Then Henrik Zetterberg bowed out with a bad back that he might have been better off resting before Detroit’s playoff drive, and John Tavares went down with a torn knee ligament, lost for the rest of the NHL season. You didn’t need a clairvoyant to know what Charles Wang, the guy who pays Tavares’s salary, was thinking, not to mention the Isles’ GM Garth Snow, who went public, sputtering, “Are the IIHF or IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now?” (Yes, it’s the Islanders, but he had a point.)

With the next Olympics four years away in South Korea, it seems all but certain that future hockey tournaments will be left to amateurs, juniors, KHLers, or some other less valuable subset of hockey players. Meanwhile, the NHL will restart the World Cup, sell the rights for a bundle and try to exploit a little bit of that flag-waving and chest-thumping for its own enrichment.

The hockey will still be great, the anthems will be played and IOC president Thomas Bach and Co. won’t get their pound of flesh. If another star drops the way Tavares and Zetterberg did in Sochi, at least it will be for a good cause—money.

In the wake of these Olympics, that actually doesn’t seem so terrible.

The truth is, Canada’s victory felt less momentous, less like a lifetime watershed away from home ice, minus the last-second heroics. We are most comfortable in the role of plucky underdogs triumphing over more talented foes—a narrative that didn’t quite jibe with what may have been the greatest defensive team ever assembled sucking the oxygen out of the rink in the games that mattered most against the U.S. and Sweden.

That said, four years from now, you can be sure that hearts will start beating that familiar rhythm again, the same fears and doubts will arise, the same debate will rage around the selection process, the same hands will be wrung, all because
of that all-important gold medal.

Even if you don’t buy into the Olympics’ quasi-belief system, even if you see it for the commercial enterprise that it is, there’s no denying the power of its product, the way it can make you care passionately about luge or ice dancing or biathlon when they’re wrapped in those five rings.

Hockey? Yeah, it’s always going to matter here, and any team wearing the maple leaf, in any context, is going to stir tribal passions, no matter the context.

And hockey in the Olympics is for Canadians something else again. It has been a joy seeing the best against the best (and winning).

Whoever puts on the uniform in Pyeongchang will still have the chance to be a hero—but there’s no pretending it will be the same.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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