Contrary to reports, elite professional hockey players from North America are, in fact, competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. They're considered the best in the world. They'll wear the jerseys of Canada and the United States with pride, and continue a contentious, decades-long feud between these hockey powers, with Team USA desperately trying to break its neighbo(u)r's stranglehold on the gold medal.
It's called the Olympic women's ice hockey tournament. You should really check it out. It's going to be great.
There's also a men's hockey tournament, which arrives with much less fanfare than usual, since the National Hockey League, having grown tired of shutting down its season for little return on investment from the International Olympic Committee, restricted any player under contract from competing in the 2018 Winter Games. (Well, that and to use the Olympics as a collective bargaining chip against the players, which is a shame.)
For weeks, I had been able to trick my mind into being psyched to watch the men's tournament. It's Olympic hockey! And I'm old enough to remember what an NHL-less Olympics looked like, and remember they weren't all that terrible. Well, I mean, the Americans were, outside of 1980 and 1992, when the U.S. finished fourth (thank you, Ray LeBlanc).
But lately, I've been in the Sunken Place on Olympic hockey, looking around for Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid and the collective of stars filling out national team rosters but just seeing darkness instead.
Yes, part of this is due to the fact that Team USA would have been really, really good. But more to the point: NHL hockey on the Olympic stage is like having a $200 cheeseburger at a three-Michelin-star restaurant and then going to Fuddruckers. The one from the burger joint is still satisfying, but oh dear lord do the ingredients and the technical savvy matter.
So I write this as I desperately dig my fingernails into the ledge and hope for something to compel me to get out of bed and watch this glorified Spengler Cup. I think I've found some things that might actually do the trick.
Here are eight reasons why the men's Olympic ice hockey tournament at the 2018 Winter Olympics is worth your time:
The international ice sheet used in the Olympics is 15 feet wider than that used in the NHL, AHL and in NCAA hockey -- 100 feet wide vs. 85 feet.
This distance has always added some novelty to the tournament when the Olympics are held outside of North America, as players who have learned the angles of the smaller ice adjust their games to larger rinks. Typically, this has manifested itself in NHL-laden teams playing a more conservative, puck-possession game -- Canada, for example, scored six goals in three medal-round games in Sochi, making the ice "smaller" by funneling as much of the play to the middle of the rink as it could.
The difference in Pyeongchang is that the vast majority of the players in the tournament have competed on the larger ice for years in their respective European leagues, and hence might be able to better harness it.
"You can have players who are good in the NHL, but they can't play on the bigger ice, and then you have guys the other way around, where they really succeed on the big ice but when they come over here, they can't play. It's a different sport," Vancouver Canucks star Henrik Sedin said.
'Oh hey, it's that guy ...'
This is always a fun game to play in international hockey tournaments, as some random player whose hockey card you pulled in 2008 and then never thought of again ends up representing his country after toiling for years in an overseas league.
But the 2018 version of "Oh hey, it's that guy" is the super-deluxe version, since it basically describes the foundation of the Team USA and Canada rosters: "Oh hey, it's Derek Roy!' and "Oh hey, it's Bobby Sanguinetti!' and "Oh hey, it's Rob Klinkhammer!" and so on.
As you watch the tournament, celebrate the return of some of your favorite random former NHL players to your lives, such as:
Viktor Stalberg, F, Sweden
Martin Erat, W, Czech Republic
Sami Lepisto, D, Finland
Christian Ehrhoff, D, Germany
Ladislav Nagy, C, Slovakia
Patrick Thoresen, F, Norway
Linus Omark, Enigma, Sweden
Granted, the natural inclination might be to ponder why you're watching Viktor Stalberg instead of Filip Forsberg on the world's greatest athletic stage. On the other hand, Filip Forsberg fans are probably delighted to see where Martin Erat ended up.
The Korean Cinderella
Speaking of "Oh hey, it's that guy" at the Olympics: We have a Jim Paek sighting!
The 50-year-old is coaching the Korean men's team after a 217-game NHL career that saw him win two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the first Korean-born hockey player to both play in the NHL, and have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
He's also likely the only name you'll recognize on the Korea roster, unless you're a stan for the Daemyung Killer Whales of the Asia League or you've read up on Mike Testwuide, the American-born former Philadelphia Flyers player who is now a South Korean citizen.
Let's be real: There are underdogs, and then there's the South Korean team in the men's ice hockey tournament. It enters the event ranked No. 21 in the world -- behind Poland, ahead of Ukraine -- and is in a group with Canada (ranked No. 1), Czech Republic (No. 6) and Switzerland (No. 7). For Korea to be even competitive in these games, let alone win one, would be a monumental achievement for this hockey nation.
But let's daydream for a moment: How incredible would it be if Korea was able to win a game, or advance in the medal round, sparking a fervor for the sport in the nation that would have never happened if the NHL players participated -- especially given that part of the NHL's justification for not going was that South Korea wasn't a boom market for hockey?
Look, there's an expansion team in Las Vegas that's probably going to win the Stanley Cup, so really anything is possible in hockey this year.
My goalie, the hero
The Pyeongchang Games men's ice hockey tournament runs from Feb. 15-25. Depending on a team's seed, that could mean a maximum of seven games played during that span.
Seven games. Two weeks. All it takes is one hot goaltender in a tournament that's filled with potential parity to push an underdog into medal contention.
Several former NHL goalies in these Olympics could attempt that feat: Jhonas Enroth of Sweden; Jonas Hiller of Switzerland, which has a tradition of goalies stealing games at the Winter Games; and Karri Ramo of Finland. But those teams also have goalies without name recognition in the NHL who are worth watching: Mikko Koskinen of Finland, who's been outstanding in the KHL this season; Tobias Stephan, who has spent the last four seasons with EV Zug in the Swiss league; and Magnus Hellberg of Sweden, a 6-foot-5 behemoth who had cups of coffee with the Nashville Predators and New York Rangers before really finding his game with Kunlun in the KHL this season.
Canada and the U.S. each bring three goaltenders of varying degrees of experience and potential to the Games. Ben Scrivens of Canada and Ryan Zapolski of the U.S. are the ones worth keeping an eye on.
Regardless of who wins gold, and if an underdog medals, it's going to be the goalie's name that will be shouted from the South Korean mountaintops.
Just because the NHL isn't participating in the Olympics doesn't mean there isn't a must-see player in the tournament.
Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, 17, is projected to be the next great NHL defenseman, which is why teams are considering clearing the decks at the trade deadline to better position themselves in the draft lottery. He's a brilliant skater, with that Erik Karlsson-like ability to make opponents just look silly on the ice.
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) January 1, 2018
"He's still so young, but it seems like he's 30 years old. He's so calm. It seems like he doesn't care so much about [the attention]," New York Rangers prospect and Team Sweden captain Lias Andersson told ESPN at world juniors.
Getting a chance to watch the future of the NHL in a Swedish jersey, in a tournament sans NHL players, is reminiscent of the 1994 Lillehammer Games. That's when Peter Forsberg, who had been drafted sixth overall by the Flyers in 1991, had eight points in eight games and that epic shootout goal against Canada to win gold. We fully expect that Dahlin will end up on a postage stamp, too.
A surrealist Russian nightmare
The last time Russia won Olympic men's hockey gold it was part of the Unified Team in 1992, which featured six of the 15 former Soviet republics. Russia Prime won silver in Nagano, but hasn't even medaled since winning bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002.
That should change in 2018, as the Russians are by far the most star-studded and cohesive team in the tournament. No one else boasts weaponry like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Kirill Kaprizov, Sergei Mozyakin, Vadim Shipachyov and Sergei Kalinin. Just two players on the roster have played for KHL teams other than CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, meaning this is a team built on established chemistry. One of its three goalies -- Vasili Koshechkin, of Metallurg Magnitogorsk; Igor Shestyorkin, CSKA Moscow; Ilya Sorokin, SKA St. Petersburg -- should be able to cobble together a stable two weeks in the crease.
The Russians entering this tournament as The Big Bad is so wonderful. It's like a throwback to a simpler time of "Rambo" and "Red Dawn," before all this hacking stuff blurred the lines.
One problem, however:
This isn't technically Russia.
Because of the doping scandal that rocked the Russian Olympic team, the nation's athletes were permitted to participate in the 2018 Games but not under the Russian name or the Russian flag. Kovalchuk isn't playing for Russia; he is officially an Olympic Athlete From Russia. If Russian athletes win a medal, their national anthem won't play. Their flag won't fly. Their medals won't count toward a national team total.
So the "Black Mirror" twist to Russia having arguably its best chance in decades to win gold in hockey is that "Russia" can't win gold, even if its players can.
As a sweater nerd, the Olympics always offer some new twists on old favorites. Granted, the Nike designs are a bit much when it comes to the sleeves on these sweaters, but some of them are OK.
Here are the Team USA designs:
I'm really excited for Olympic hockey, but I won't be buying a Team USA jersey this time around. It has carp scale sleeves and looks like the Russians meddled with the font, which I guess is possible. pic.twitter.com/JZJRgflBT6
- Erik Pollom (@ErikPollom) February 6, 2018
My new rule on sweaters is to judge them not on the screen, but by how they look on the ice. So maybe movement will improve these.
Andy, hey, it could be worse:
- Р-Спорт (@rsportru) December 17, 2017
It's like a jersey from a movie that couldn't get licensing rights from Russia.
The underdog stories
What do you think of when you think of the Olympics?
The medals? The athletic achievement? The national pride?
I think of the stories. I think about the athletes we've met through the years whose journeys to this moment -- and the sacrifices themselves and their families have made -- define them as competitors. I think about athletes, so anonymous that you could collide shopping carts with them at Whole Foods and not recognize them, becoming household names for two weeks.
I think about second chances. The Olympics are full of them. Skaters who win silver and then challenge for gold. Athletes who crash on the slopes and then work their way back four years later for redemption.
In this Olympic hockey tournament, we have stories and we have second chances, and they're found in the same athlete.
"It's about guys who have received a 'no,' but have found a way to make a 'yes.' Their determination is incredible," said Team Canada coach Willie Desjardins, fired less than a year ago by the Canucks. "I've had a chance to stand and represent Canada. But I've never had a chance to be a part of the hopes and dreams of other Olympians."
It's a chance for these players to earn respect from teams and peers that have withheld it. For some, it's a chance to earn a path back to North America after self-exile in leagues overseas. For all, it's a chance to achieve Olympic glory, which is something they hadn't dreamed about since they were children mimicking their heroes.
It's not the NHL Olympic tournament. Nothing is. But it doesn't need to be in order to captivate us, on a human and patriotic level, for two weeks.