Hockey fans and certainly NHL players got their wish Friday when the NHL and NHLPA announced an agreement to officially return to the Olympics when they land in Beijing this coming February.
It'll be the first true best-on-best international tournament since the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where Canada clinched back-to-back golds. We're likely to see the Olympic debuts of several exciting players, including Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov.
The schedule of games will be released at a later date, but the last NHL event before the Olympic tournament will be the 2022 All-Star Game in Las Vegas on Feb. 5. Players will then fly from there to Beijing, with NHL games resuming on Feb. 23.
Olympic roster selections will loom large early this NHL season, as players vie for a position on the top teams in the world. How many will return from 2014, and how different will every roster look? There are slam-dunk picks to be sure, but early-season success could hold a lot of sway in determining those final spots.
And while we're excited for this return, the pandemic will continue to be a factor the league and union will be monitoring in the lead up to the event. While the plan is now officially to return NHLers to the Games, the agreement left the door open for a later withdrawal if COVID-19 conditions make it too unsafe or impractical for NHL players to go.
But this is a day for optimism and roster debates. With NHLers on track to return to the Olympics, here is a brief overview of which countries will be competing, what the groups look like and more.
While the top eight men's teams in the world earned automatic bids into the Olympic tournament, another three squads had to play in through qualifying. This four-stage process played out over a year (interrupted by the pandemic), with the final of those tournaments finishing up just last weekend.
Bratislava, Riga and Oslo hosted three different pools of four teams each for the last Olympic qualifying spots. The teams within those pools played a three-game round robin, with the top finisher from each group emerging as an Olympic qualifier.
Slovakia, ranked ninth in the world, clinched its spot with a 2-1 win over Belarus. Latvia, ranked 10th in the world, got in after a 2-1 decision over France. And Denmark, ranked 12th in the world, qualified following a 2-0 win against host Norway, with Nikolaj Ehlers scoring the insurance marker. It's the first time Denmark has qualified for the Olympic men's hockey tournament.
NHLers will be added to each of these qualifying teams for the Olympics, so we haven't seen their best versions yet.
Announced back in April, these Olympic groupings were determined by world ranking for the top eight teams. Those rankings are made based off finishes in recent world championships and the last Olympics. Since there weren't any international tournaments in 2020, these rankings remained unchanged from the conclusion of the 2019 worlds.
With Canada, Finland and Russia holding the top three spots, they were spread across the three groups.
The qualifying tournament locked in three more teams, while host China was given an automatic bid.
Group A: Canada (1), USA (6), Germany (7), China (32)
Group B: Russia (2), Czech Republic (5), Switzerland (8), Denmark (12)
Group C: Finland (3), Sweden (4), Slovakia (9), Latvia (10)
(World rank in parenthesis)
It's worth noting that Canada and the U.S. will be in the same Olympic grouping for the men's hockey event for the first time since 2010, making it a guarantee they will face each other at least once. USA won the preliminary round matchup against Canada in Vancouver, but of course the gold-medal game played out differently.
Each team will play three games in the group stage, facing others in their group once. When the preliminary round is finished, every team will be re-ranked from 1-12 for the medal round. The top finishers in each group and the second-ranked team with the best record will get a bye to the quarterfinals, while the other eight teams will play a qualification-round game.
These rankings will be based on where they finished in their group, and the number of points tallied in the prelims. Further tiebreakers include (in order) goal differential, higher number of goals scored and, finally, their IIHF ranking.
In the qualification playoff round, team No. 5 will face team No. 12, team No. 6 will face team No. 11, team No. 7 will face team No. 10 and team No. 8 will face team No. 9. This is a single elimination playoff right through to the gold-medal game.
A loss in the qualification playoff round or the quarterfinal and you're out. A loss in the semifinal and you move to the bronze-medal game.
HOW WILL CHINA FARE?
Just like every Olympics, the host nation gets an automatic bid into the men's hockey tournament, but Team China might be more out of its league than any before it.
While South Korea went winless in 2018, at least they weren't playing against NHL competition. Still, they only scored once and allowed 14 goals against in their three preliminary games and then lost 5-2 to Finland in the first playoff round.
Russia hosted in 2014 and Canada in 2010. In 2006, Italy was the host nation and were outscored 23-9 in the prelims, but earned two ties. There were only two groups in that tournament, though, and the top four from each moved on to the playoff, so Italy was eliminated after three games. USA hosted in 2002 and in 1998, the first Olympics with NHLers, host Japan played in the tournament and were outscored 10-5, earned one tie, but were eliminated after the prelims.
China will enter the 2022 tournament as the lowest-ranked host to join the event in the time of NHL participation. Ranked 32nd in the world, China is just ahead of Iceland and Israel, and just behind Spain and Serbia.
And there are real concerns at how overmatched they might be. An article from China Sports Insider from May quoted one hockey executive who spoke of a "slaughter" that could occur when the Chinese have to play Canada, USA and Germany in the prelims.
"A coach who has first-hand experience with the Chinese squad told me he thought the scores against Canada and the US could be in the region of 100-0," the article says.
While it surely won't be that bad (right?), rosters still don't need to be set for a few months yet so China's roster isn't finalized. It's not clear if they will be able to add foreign nationals, or if the IIHF will bend its own rules to allow for those kinds of additions at this late stage. When a player has changed or acquired new citizenship to participate for the first time in an IIHF event, the rules indicate they must first participate for "at least two consecutive hockey seasons and 16 consecutive months (480 days) in the national competitions of his new country."
With less than six months until the Olympics begin, time is too short to meet those criteria.
This will be a situation worth monitoring.