Olympic hockey will need a different kind of miracle on ice

Canada's goaltender Ben Scrivens looks up during a men's ice hockey team practice during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Gangneung, South Korea on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Canada's goaltender Ben Scrivens looks up during a men's ice hockey team practice during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Gangneung, South Korea on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Published February 12 2018
Updated February 12 2018

The men's Olympic hockey tournament starts this week.

Who cares?

The only recognizable names will be on the front of the sweaters, not the backs. Because of that, the best hockey tournament in the world has been reduced to a tournament that carries little interest and even less importance.

No thanks.

We are about to be subjected to hockey that isn't on par with decent college hockey. And don't give me that jazz about how it gives a bunch of kids that normally would never get the chance an opportunity to compete in the Olympics. We're not passing out orange slices along with gold medals. The Olympics are supposed to be about the best athletes in the world, not a bunch of has-been and never-was guys who are playing because the best aren't allowed.

Do the math. We're talking about taking the best 1,000 players in the world and excluding them from this tournament. Don't tell me what's left over is worth watching.

If I wanted to watch a bunch of players I never heard of who aren't good enough to play in the best league in the world, I'd hang out at Brandon Ice Sports Forum this week and watch a bunch of dudes play pick-up.

Maybe I never heard of all the Olympic speed skaters and snowboarders and lugers, but at least I know they are the very best speed skaters and snowboarders and lugers in the world.

Meantime, I know the best hockey players in the world are nowhere near Pyeongchang.

We should be watching Steven Stamkos competing for Canada, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman for Sweden, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy for Russia, Tyler Johnson for the United States.

Instead, they will all be playing for the Lightning in NHL games. A decent consolation, I suppose, but a consolation nonetheless.

And instead of us watching superstars Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews and Carey Price playing against one another in a virtual all-star tournament, we are left to watch a tournament with only a handful of recognizable names, such as former NHLers Brian Gionta, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk whose best days were a decade ago.

Who is to blame? Mostly the NHL. They argue that it all just isn't worth it.

The league contends that it hasn't really seen a bump in popularity after allowing its players to play in the Olympics. And why risk injury to their best players for a tournament that doesn't help the NHL? The risk, the league says, isn't equal to the reward.

But it's a short-sighted view.

First off, the players love playing in the Olympics. They love it so much that they play for free. And even though they are playing for no pay, they play as hard as any Stanley Cup game. Forbidding them to play almost assuredly will lead to a nasty labor showdown and potential work stoppage in 2019.

Meantime, hockey diehards love the Olympic tournament and, if you pick up even a handful of new fans it's worth it. The sport could use all the fans it can get.

So, playing in the Olympics makes players happy. It makes fans happy. It grows the sport, even if only a little. It provides some of the best memories the sport can provide.

And we're talking two weeks. Two weeks. That's all.

Isn't this all good?

Now, there are those will argue that the greatest hockey game ever played, and maybe the greatest sporting event of our lifetime, was when the American college boys beat the Soviets in the 1980 "Miracle on Ice.'' Didn't that game feature a bunch of unknown amateurs?

That was a perfect storm of sports, personalities and politics that will never be repeated. It literally was an once-in-a-lifetime event. It was so remarkable that they made two movies about it.

Other than that one miracle, most fans can't name even one other Olympic hockey game involving amateurs aside from the games involving the '80 team. And, again, that 1980 tournament was before we knew how good a tournament of NHL players could be.

There's no putting the genie back in the bottle once NHL players were allowed to go to the Olympics starting in 1998. We know how awesome it can be so why should we settle for so much less?

This Friday, the best hockey game on the planet will, probably, be the Dallas Stars hosting the St. Louis Blues. Or, maybe, the Flyers visiting Columbus. Decent games, but just a couple of a regular-season NHL games.

That same day, in South Korea, the U.S. will be playing the Russians. Imagine what could have been. It could have been another Olympic classic, a reminder of the Miracle on Ice.

The miracle will be if anyone actually cares.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones

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