PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – If the Olympic men’s hockey tournament had remained unchanged, and NHL players were allowed to participate, Sean Burke’s job as general manager of Team Canada would have been fairly simple.
Hello Sidney and Connor, you guys in? Cool, see you in South Korea.
Picking Crosby and McDavid to play in the Olympics takes less time than a sneeze.
This isn’t a normal Olympic tournament, though. The NHL grew tired of the interruption and injury risk to star players, and thus blocked players from participating for the first time since 1994.
Unable to pick from that pool, those in charge of constructing Olympic rosters were forced to beat the bushes in search of the next tier of talent in far-flung hockey outposts.
Burke said he relied very little on technology in analyzing his potential roster.
“Unless you can call an airplane technology,” he said. “We did not pick this team via video. We saw lots of games and I was in places I never knew existed in Russia and all over the world.”
The theme of this Olympic tournament should be: “Who are these guys?” Rosters will be very important in putting names to faces, not unlike the first day of school.
“It’s more unpredictable because not a lot of teams know about each other,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said. “There’s not a lot of information on some of the players on other teams. Probably that’s [how] they’re looking at our team, trying to figure out who a lot of our players are.”
The list of favorites usually starts with Canada, winner of the gold medal in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. But in this NHL-less tournament, the most talented team is the artist formerly known as Russia.
The Russian delegation, technically, was banned (wink, wink) after the International Olympic Committee discovered a systematic, government-operated doping scheme after the Sochi Games. Russian athletes who proved to the IOC that they are clean were allowed to participate in these Games under the label OAR — Olympic Athlete from Russia.
Their hockey OARs have a good shot to claim gold, led by former NHL stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.
“Everybody knows about the Russian team,” Granato said. “I am too, looking at it as the team with the most talented players. But everyone here knows the team with the most talented players doesn’t win every tournament.”
Roughly one-third of players participating in the Olympic tournament currently play in the Kontinental Hockey League, which is widely regarded as the second-best league in the world behind the NHL.
USA Hockey selected five players from the KHL, four from college and a host of guys who play professionally in Europe and the American Hockey League. It’s a broad mix of players who otherwise would not get this opportunity.
“This is a second lease on life for our hockey careers, and I think we’re all re-energized by that,” forward Brian O’Neill said. “Most of us have been in Europe and our careers have been up and down. This is definitely the biggest high for a lot of us.”
The Americans didn’t practice as an entire group until after arriving in South Korea on Thursday. They will have only five practices together before they play a game.
Not ideal, but Granato doesn’t act concerned.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” he said.
The absence of NHL players gives this Olympics a different vibe. Games will still be exciting and intensively competitive. Compelling stories will emerge. But the level of play can’t possibly match having the best talent in the world on the ice.
Olympic hockey is always fun, though, and this will be no different. A number of teams probably like their chances. Put Granato in that camp.
“I think there’s a lot that you will see in our team that you will like,” he said.
Given the makeup of his team, a reporter went fishing on the 1980 Olympic angle. Granato didn’t bite, saying he has no intentions of showing his players the movie “Miracle.”
“We don’t need a miracle to win,” he said. “We need to be our best for two weeks to win this tournament.”