THE OPTION | Olympic Hockey Without the NHL

Does the U.S. really have a chance?

For the past five Winter Olympics, the NHL has paused their regular season and allowed their players to represent their countries. Not anymore. Following meetings between team owners and the NHLPA (NHL player's association), the league has decided to pull out of the 2018 Winter Games. There were a few reasons for this.

For one, the league stands to lose a lot of money. Mid-February is the most lucrative time of the year for the NHL, as they don't have to compete with the MLB or the NFL. The league is also (rightfully) worried about their players getting injured during international play, weeks before the NHL playoffs begin. On top of this, the IOC (International Olympics Committee) also told the NHL that it will no longer be paying for players' travel/accommodation costs. The IOC also refused to pay for insurance for NHL players. With all this considered, the decision was an easy one for commissioner Gary Bettman. An unfortunate aftershock of this decision, however, is that if the NHL decides to change its mind in the future, the IOC has said they (the NHL) are not welcome to participate in 2022.

Without the participation of NHL players, the caliber of play in Olympic hockey will go down significantly. Countries like the U.S. and Canada who are usually Olympic powerhouses, have resorted to fielding teams of amateurs. The best players on the ice for either country are members of the AHL, the NHL's minor league affiliate. On the one hand, there will be more parity between teams in this years' competition, but on the other, the NHL isn't the only hockey league in the world.

The Russian KHL has long been considered the second best league in the world, and with the NHL skipping this year, the Russian team, dressed in neutral colors, looks like the frontrunner. Russia is the only top international team that didn't have to majorly change its roster to compensate for the lack of top talent. Finland and Sweden both had to remake their rosters, and there aren't many other European teams that could skate with the Russians before losing they lost their NHL players. While the Russians will be without Alex Ovechkin, former NHL all-stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk will be leading the team and most of Russia's players come from the top two KHL clubs, SKA St.Petersburg and CSKA Moscow. These players already have chemistry, having played together for years. The Russians are also determined to learn from their mistakes in 1980, back when they were huge favorites to win Olympic Gold at Lake Placid. They're determined not to "get cocky" like they did when they played against the U.S. almost forty years ago.

On the U.S. side of things, it looks a bit bleak. Our odds of winning gold have been marked at ten to one, and we aren't even projected to make the semi-finals.

A quick lesson in Olympic tournament ice hockey:

There are three groups of four teams. These teams face off against each other during the preliminary rounds to decide seeding. The top team in each group, along with the 4th best team overall, gets a bye to the quarterfinals. The tournament then begins with seeds 5-12 playing each other in the first round of the knockout stage and continues in a fashion similar to March Madness.

Group A

Canada, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Korea

Group B

Russia, USA, Slovakia, Slovenia

Group C

Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany

The U.S., unfortunately, drew the group of death, having to play Russia in the preliminary rounds and more likely than not missing out on a first-round playoff bye. Currently power-ranked 6th in the tournament, the U.S. has some sheer cliffs to scale if they want taste Olympic gold this time around. We haven't won the Olympic ice hockey tournament since Herb Brooks coached the U.S. during the 1980 miracle game. This time around, the odds are about the same, and frankly, if they win, there's no doubt we'll be calling it The Miracle Two. Somebody call Kurt Russell. The boys need some words of encouragement.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff

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