Olympic hockey needs the NHL

Well, that was disappointing to watch.

Every time the Winter Olympics comes around, the excitement builds among hockey fans to see if this would be the year that the U.S. men’s hockey team ends its gold medal drought that stretches back to the famous “Miracle on Ice” back in 1980.

When the NHL decided not to let its players compete, it appeared as if the chances of the Americans winning gold took a serious hit.

But there was still a chance, right? None of the other countries had NHL players competing, so maybe everyone would be back on equal footing (or skating).

I even tried to convince myself, as well as you readers, that this could still be fun. Who knows? Maybe we would still see a “miracle” of sorts.

As it turned out, I was just kidding myself. At times, the U.S. squad, made up of minor leaguers with some NHL experience, college players and Brian Gionta, looked sharp, but at other times, it looked way overmatched.

These players blew a two-goal lead in a loss to Slovenia, a team they should have rolled over. After sneaking past Slovakia, the Americans were then hammered by OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) in the preliminary round in a game reminiscent of that game the U.S. played the Soviets at Madison Square Garden before the 1980 Games.

OK, maybe not that bad, but it was still awful to watch, no matter what head coach Tony Granato tells you.

If you’ve never seen the movie “Miracle,” that was the game where coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) considers benching goalie Jim Craig after he gives up 10 goals to the Soviets.

Watching that game against OAR, I thought about that line Kurt Russell said in the movie — “Right now, it’s everybody’s net.”

After beating Slovakia (who had upset OAR in the prelims) in the round of 16, they moved on to the quarterfinals and were eliminated by the Czech Republic in a shootout.

A shootout where the Americans couldn’t find the net once. Before that, they had 40 seconds remaining of a power play to start the overtime session and didn’t put up a shot. It was a sad way to go out.

You can’t blame the players, as they gave it their all in a tournament that was stacked against them from the start, or Granato and his fellow coaches.

It can take quite a while for players who’ve never played with each other to gel. Back in 1980, while trying to whittle the roster down, Brooks and the U.S. played multiple exhibitions to try to make that happen.

This year’s team didn’t have that opportunity and were basically expected to become great in a short period of time. That can happen with NHL players, not with players that inexperienced.

The blame pretty much lies with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who seems really intent on being the worst league boss in pro sports, and his Board of Governors.

They didn’t see the point of going to the games because of travel and insurance costs, the fact that the league would have to stop its season for a few weeks and the concern that players could get injured while competing in Pyeongchang.

The sad thing about those reasons are that this type of experience only comes along every four years and the players would be just as likely to get injured playing in an NHL game as overseas.

As a result of that shortsightedness, the U.S. had to put a patchwork team on the ice that definitely had talent, but it was mostly “potential” talent.

The best American players during the tournament were the college players. Harvard’s Ryan Donato had five goals, while Denver’s Troy Terry and Boston University’s Jordan Greenway also picked up points for the Americans.

All of them have impressive abilities but are at least a step away from reaching the NHL, thus they couldn’t carry the U.S. to a medal or even to the medal round itself.

If there’s something good that can be taken from the men’s tournament, it’s the possibility that the NHL will change its tune after watching the U.S. performance (two victories and an early exit).

Maybe some sense will sink in over the next four years and they’ll see that fans want NHL players in the Olympics and the players do as well.

Putting the season on hold for awhile is a small price to pay in favor of league exposure and a chance to gain more hockey fans.

Until then, at least we can keep remembering what the U.S. women accomplished early Thursday morning.

That should be enough to sustain us.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.