Imagine that instead of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Quick butting helmets with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews for an Olympic medal this weekend, you were watching Johnny Gaudreau and Greg Carey go up against Samuel Bennett and Leon Draisaitl.
Would it have been as exciting? As riveting? As good a hockey game?
That’s what the classic showdown between USA and Canada would have looked like if NHL players did not go to the Sochi Olympics.
And it’s what the 2018 Winter Olympics will look like if NHL players don’t go to Pyeongchang, South Korea – the top collegiate players in the U.S. going up against the top junior talent in Canada.
“I think the Olympics is supposed to be the best athletes in every sport,” Capitals defenseman John Erskine said. “The NHL has the majority of the best players, so yeah, they should [go].
“I think NHL players should be in every Olympics. I think if you ask the majority of the guys, they want to go.”
Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth was considered a favorite to be on this year’s Czech Olympic team, but his lack of playing time early in the season kept him off the national team. Asked if he thinks NHL players should return to the Games in South Korea, Neuvirth was strong with his response.
“Oh, a hundred percent,” he said. “That’s pretty much our only chance to represent our countries. I would be really disappointed if we didn’t go.”
It is worth nothing that there is a 14-hour time difference between Washington and Pyeongchang. That means a hockey game played at 7 p.m. in South Korea will be aired live at 5 a.m. here.
Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer said the time difference is a minor concession compared to the worldwide attention that is brought to the NHL during the Olympics.
“I think it grows the sport globally a lot more than the coverage here in the States,” Brouwer said. “It gives the whole world a chance to see what kind of talent there is out there.”
Capitals general manager George McPhee agrees, but he’s not a big fan of shutting down the NHL for three weeks and the travel involved for NHL players.
“I would agree [the Olympics helps the game grow],” McPhee said. “The growth in our game in a lot of places is really phenomenal and the growth of our game in this area alone is really impressive.
“That’s why we went into [the Olympics] in the first place. But you have to weigh how long you shut it down. If it’s in North America it’s pretty convenient. When it’s over there, it’s hard on people.”
For the 600-plus NHL players who do not compete in the Olympics every four years, the three-week break in the NHL schedule affords them a chance to jet off to an island paradise and re-charge their batteries for the stretch run.
“The guys who have the chance to play in the Games love it,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who spent time last week in the Caribbean. “And for the guys who aren’t that get a chance to get 10 days off, it’s unbelievable.
“Going into that break a lot of guys were feeling tired. You usually have that All-Star break for four days, so having this is great for the guys playing and great for the guys who aren’t playing.”
There is, of course, the threat of injury while playing for your home country. The New York Islanders will play the remainder of this season without star center John Tavares, who tore ligaments in his knee while playing for Team Canada.
Caps left wing Brooks Laich was asked if he could understand the concerns voiced by NHL owners who run the risk of losing their best players during the Olympics.
“I don’t think I ever understand the owners’ side of it,” he said. “I don’t own the team. I play the game because I love it.
“If I’m John Tavares and I get the call to play for Canada I’m going. You’re going to play just as hard for your [NHL] team when you get back. I can’t look at it from an owner’s standpoint.
“It’s not an investment for us. We play this game because we love it. Of course it’s a living for us, but to play for your country in the Olympics, man, it’s a special honor.”