NHL tries to put Olympic genie back in the bottle

John Gilbert

Forty years ago, John Harrington was playing on an exceptional UMD hockey team, and when he was done, he an teammate Mark Pavelich made hockey history on the legendary 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Coached by Herb Brooks, Team USA astounded the hockey world, the sports world, and the world in genereal by upsetting the enormously favored Soviet Union and then beating Finland to win the Gold Medal at Lake Placid.Harrington played on the 1994 team, also, and then embarked on a long career as one of the brightest young coaches in the game. He isn’t as young these days, but he’s still one of the brightest coaches, as he focuses his efforts to lift Minnesota State-Mankato up to contending in the Women’s WCHA.

When I reached John Harrington he was coming off the golf course. We had both been watching with great interest the drama unfolding about the National Hockey League, the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, and Team USA. The NHL, which entered the Olympics and its huge publicity spotlight for the 1998 Games in Sapporo, Japan, then virtually took over the hockey tournament, has declared that it will not participate in the 2018 Olympics. It will not allow its players to take time off from NHL games to play. That is in spite of some players already saying they intend to play. What does USA Hockey do? Do they go after obscure minor leaguers, or maybe college players?“Right now, they’re kind of involved in a big ‘chicken’ game,” said Harrington. “I don’t know what will happen, but I would guess they will try to get some minor league players and some top college players.”We can all look forward to next February, tuning in to watch the 2018 Winter Olympics hockey tournament.

Who will win the Gold Medal -- Canada? The U.S.? Russia? Sweden? Finland? Pick a favorite. However, we might find out that the most heated competition will take place in a boardroom, rather than on the Olympic-size ice sheet in South Korea.Naturally, the Olympics wanted the best players in the world at the Games, so the NHL jumped in and forced their referees, their rules, their politics, and even their smaller rink size, on the International Ice Hockey Federation.The Olympics became what the World Championships, and special events like the Canada Cup, had become. Now that the Olympics have become an NHL showcase, the NHL is trying to force the genie back into the bottle.You can see both sides. 

Some NHL team owners were not thrilled at stopping league play for three weeks in midseason, and sending off their best players to risk injuries and -- more importantly? -- lose revenue. So Gary Bettman, NHL boss and spokesman for the NHL team owners, issued the word: The NHL will NOT participate in the 2018 Olympic Games. Schedules are done, so it won’t happen.We won’t see top Canadian stars, such as Sidney Crosby, and the impressive crop of top young U.S. stars, or any of the other top NHLers. Tony Granato, new coach at the University of Wisconsin, has been named to coach Team USA. We wish him the best.From the NHL’s standpoint, we understand it’s a business, and there are concerns about profits. But is the NHL concerned about the game itself? Or how important the Olympics are to every player at every level?Almost as soon as the move was declared, Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin announced that he was going to play for Russia in the Olympics, regardless.

If you ran the Washington Capitols, your hands are pretty well tied. You have to say, “So long, Alex. Have a good tournament, and we’ll see you in a couple weeks.” Other European pros have said the same thing. What about Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund of the Wild -- do they get to play for Finland? Does Nino Neiderreiter play for Switzerland? Will minor league pros be able to play? Will players who stay in Europe to play, in order to be eligible for the Olympics, be the stars?This past week, the NHL sent down another declaration.

Any players who are signed to an NHL contract will not be allowed to participate in the Olympics. Players who have signed two-way contracts for the NHL and minor league affiliates will also be excluded. The American Hockey League announced earlier that its owners and general managers can decide to allow players on AHL contracts to play in South Korea.The NHL added that players who are drafted and signed by NHL teams, but elected to play in Europe this coming season, will be allowed to play in South Korea.“People talk about going back to amateurs, who will play with more enthusiasm,” Harrington said. “Enthusiasm? Those NHLers play with plenty of enthusiasm.

”Selecting a team of college and junior players might allow the U.S. and Canada to put together exciting and quite formidable teams. But they will have to knock off European teams with a much higher and more sophisticated level of players, such as Russia, Sweden, Finland, and rising powers such as Switzerland.It would be an incredible long shot for Team USA to compete for the Gold in that company. Although it did happen, back in 1980.

I was there, and it was magical. But times change. Herb Brooks later embraced the change when he coached Team USA at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, winning Silver. Herbie, who died in a tragic highway accident, would have turned 80 this week.John Harrington is playing golf and trying to figure out ways to improve his Mavericks in the upcoming season, but he and I can pause anytime and anyplace to reminisce about 1980, but we both know the Winter Olympics can never go back to that, where a fresh-faced gang of college players could shock the professional-grade players from Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. It will be a thrill, for whatever players make the teams, as they line up along the blue line for the playing of their national anthem. We just don’t think anybody will be writing a book or making a movie about a 2017 Miracle on Ice.