COLUMN: NHL, USA must find balance for Olympics

The National Hockey League announced on Monday that it had not reached a settlement with the International Olympic Committee, meaning the league will not send its players to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The NHL was seeking more concessions from the IOC after being forced to schedule an inconvenient multi-week break in the season to accommodate its Olympians every four years.

But the two sides couldn’t compromise — neither ever really seemed to try — and the league followed through on its threat to skip the Games, declaring the matter “officially closed” in a press release. For the first time since the 1994, the best hockey players on the planet will not grace the Olympic ice, and their participation in Beijing 2022 appears to be in danger as well.

This was an outcome many saw coming after months of utterly unproductive negotiations between the NHL and IOC, but that doesn’t make it any less baffling. Almost every player and coach asked about Olympic participation has strongly supported it, and some, such as Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, said they would travel to Pyeongchang even without the league’s support. With so much passion surrounding the Olympics, how can you justify barring athletes from competing for one of the greatest honors in their sport?

When the announcement was made, I had to be one of the most disappointed hockey fans on the planet. Ever since Pyeongchang won its bid for the Winter Games back in 2011, I had dreamed of watching NHL stars fly around the newly built Gangneung Hockey Centre a few hours east of my hometown of Seoul. I couldn’t wait to see some of my favorite Boston Bruins skate on Korean ice, and imagined that my brain would short-circuit if I ran into center Patrice Bergeron in the Olympic Village. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and now I would only think of Bergeron as selfish if he ditched the Bs to go play for Team Canada halfway through the 2017-2018 season.

There’s a lot of confusion right now about what the next step is. Teams could call on players from other professional leagues around the world (as Russia regularly does, pulling from the domestic KHL), or they could ask NHL teams to release their minor leaguers, veterans and prospects alike. But I have a better solution — one that would be a silver lining to this disappointment: full-on amateur hockey’s return to the Olympics.

I’m not sure if I would want it to stick around for good, but you can’t deny that it would be exciting to return to the format that led to the greatest sporting moment in American history, at least temporarily. I’ve watched the full replay of the Miracle on Ice on YouTube far too many times for someone who was 16 years from being born when it happened, but the magic bleeds through the screen every time.

“Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

Of course, it’s impossible to re-create either the circumstances or outcome of 1980 and that fateful day in Lake Placid, New York. That’s what made it a miracle. But a matchup between American and Russian amateurs would likely result in a rematch of the 2017 World Juniors semifinal in January, when the U.S. triumphed in a 4-3 nail-biter. Despite that tournament’s surprisingly sizable and passionate fanbase, however, the Olympics would take the rivalry to a new stage.

And unlike in the 2014 Games, when NHL superstars such as T.J. Oshie and Pavel Datsyuk starred, the players would be relatively anonymous. For most viewers, it would simply be nation versus nation — with players without other priorities like earning a contract extension and staying healthy for the rest of the season.

It’s an intriguing scenario, especially since U.S.-Russia tensions are probably at their highest now since 1980. President Donald Trump may be buddies with Russian president Vladimir Putin, but the allegations of election meddling have soured ties between the two countries. And they are guaranteed to meet in Pyeongchang, having been drawn in the same pool. If they both advance from Group B — which they are favorites to do — they could meet for a second time, possibly with a medal on the line.

Sure, it would have been great to watch the cream of the crop, the likes of Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews, face off against Ovechkin. But there are also plenty of reasons to get excited to watch young Americans such as Charlie McAvoy and Troy Terry potentially spearhead Team U.S.A. Both wowed at the World Juniors, coming up huge in the gold medal game against Canada. McAvoy tallied 2 points — a goal and an assist — as the two teams went to a shootout, where Terry converted the States’ lone successful attempt to win the championship.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee McAvoy or Terry would be allowed to go to Korea, either. McAvoy recently signed a tryout Amateur Try Out contract with the Bruins and could also miss the Olympics if he sticks at the NHL level. Terry remains on the University of Denver roster as the Pioneers play in the Frozen Four this weekend (McAvoy and Boston University were bounced in the quarterfinals), but the Anaheim Ducks own his rights after drafting him in 2015. If they opt to sign him early out of college, his availability for Pyeongchang would be in doubt. Considering he is just a sophomore, however, it seems like nothing would stop Terry from donning red, white and blue next February.

And that goes for most of this year’s junior roster, most of whom are still competing at the collegiate level. With the teams’ already-established chemistry, amateur hockey at the 2018 Games would likely be a much more fluid and exciting affair than a tournament with random collections of minor-league veterans. And like the 1980 team, many of the American amateurs will go on to have fruitful professional careers. After that, who knows? Maybe we’ll see the team again as All-Stars when the NHL returns to the Games — hopefully in four years.

Ollie Jung is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Jung Money,” runs every Thursday.