TAMPA, Fla. — While rolling the question over in his head, Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty took a few beats to look around.
What he saw was the NHL’s best players sitting in a humid tent, crammed with reporters and team staffers and television cameras, 12 kilometres west of downtown Tampa in a waterside suburb. Every 10 minutes or so, a plane flew either in or out of nearby Tampa International Airport and filled the tight space with a vibrating hum. The only ice around was used for chilling water bottles to keep players’ mouths from going dry during interviews that touched on the first half of the season, Super Bowl predictions and how to dress like a pirate.
So was it weird to be sitting here, a day before an all-star game that would not be taking place if NHL players were allowed to participate in the Olympics?
"It’s still kind of sad that we’re not going to be in the Olympics," said the 28-year-old Doughty, who won Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014 while playing for the Canadian national team. "It’s not going to be the same watching the gold-medal game."
At last year’s all-star game in Los Angeles, tension between the NHL and International Olympic Committee (IOC) was boiling. Players offered frustration at the thought of not representing their countries in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That was then solidified in April, when the NHL announced that its players would not be permitted to compete and that the matter was "officially closed."
That also meant the 2018 all-star game would go on — the league typically doesn’t hold one in Olympic years — and the three-day festivities now serve as a reminder of all the talent that will not be in South Korea next month.
There is no way of knowing which NHL players would have been selected to play for their countries in Pyeongchang, but it’s safe to assume that many of them are in Tampa this weekend. Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews would have likely made his first Olympic appearance for the United States. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, leading the NHL with 30 goals at 32 years old, would have played for Russia. Sidney Crosby, whose overtime winner in the 2010 gold-medal game made Olympic history, would have again led the Canadian team as the rest of the world chased it. And that’s only a start.
Instead, the world’s most talented hockey players gather for a lighthearted three-on-three tournament before the back half of the regular season starts in a few days.
The frustration at last year’s all-star game, which was mixed with a glimmer of hope that the NHL and IOC could come to terms, has been replaced by a chorus flatly singing that five-word resignation: "It is what it is."
"I have a lot of friends who are going to get the chance now to play in the Olympics, and I am extremely happy for them," said the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson of Sweden, a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenceman. "But at the same time, extremely disappointed to be robbed out of a situation that you’ve been looking forward to for a while."
Multiple factors led to the NHL pulling its players out of the Olympics.
There were questions of who would pay for the players to attend and be insured in South Korea, something the IOC did from 1998 to 2014 before announcing it would no longer do so. There was also the NHL’s concern with how the Olympics could affect the rest of its season, as players could get injured while competing for their countries or come back fatigued ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And still, the players have consistently expressed their interest in participating. In Tampa on Saturday, that included veterans who have played in multiple Olympics, and young players who are still looking for their first chance.
Nathan MacKinnon, the Colorado Avalanche’s 22-year-old star forward, said, "I’ve never been to an Olympics, so I would love to compete in that."
Karlsson lowered his voice to say, "Hopefully, we get to go to the next one." He spoke for many of those around him.
"I don’t have an answer," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday when asked if he expects the NHL to participate in future Olympics.
A few bright spots were mentioned about the decision to stay in North America. Doughty joked that it’s a lot easier to fly to Tampa than South Korea. But the sense of resignation remained.
"Olympics is the Olympics. It’s probably the best memories I have of my career," Ovechkin said. "But, you know, different guys are going to have an opportunity to play."
— Washington Post