Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Are Olympic fans set for men's hockey without NHL players?

PARIS — Men's Olympic hockey teams are preparing for life without NHL players.

With about nine months until the Games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, national hockey federations are grappling with how to build their rosters after the NHL announced last month that it would not release its players for the Olympic tournament.

Eleven of the 12 teams that qualified for the 2018 Olympics are participating in the world championship in Paris and Cologne, Germany, which ends Sunday. It is the last major international tournament before the Games.

Vinny Prospal, a former Lightning forward and an assistant coach for the Czech Republic, said the NHL's decision on the Olympics was "going to change the entire thing."

"We need to react to the situation," he said.

At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, 17 NHL players were on the Czech roster. Now the Czechs may be concentrating their scouting efforts on the Czech Extraliga, the KHL, the Swedish Elite League and the Finnish Elite League.

Prospal said players in the Czech Extraliga should be more motivated, given the roster spots that could be available come February.

Germany was among the last teams to qualify for the Olympics, taking advantage of a change in format that allowed NHL players to participate in the qualifying tournament in September. But several players who helped Germany make it to South Korea will not be going there with the team.

"I feel we would be more competitive if our NHL players were available, of course, but the players playing in Germany or other parts of Europe, they see a chance and a challenge for themselves that maybe they didn't see before with the opportunity to go to the Olympics," said Franz Reindl, president of the German ice hockey federation. "It's not our decision, but we have to live with it."

National federations have not yet been told if players in the AHL or junior leagues will be available to be selected for their Olympic teams. Final rosters are expected to be set in early January.

"The good news is, we have a lot of players, and we're confident that in the end, we're going to have a very competitive team," said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations. "It's just tough today to be able to say, 'This is our core,' because we just don't know who is even going to be available to us at the moment."

But for teams like Slovenia, not much will change in the selection process. Slovenia's roster in Paris is not so different from its probable Olympic roster. Since NHL players began competing in the Olympics in 1998, countries such as the United States and Canada have had teams made up entirely of NHL players. Slovenia has only one NHL player: the captain of the Los Angeles Kings, Anze Kopitar, and he did not come to the world championship.

The challenge for smaller hockey nations such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia is that they have fewer non-NHL players than countries such as Sweden, Finland, Russia and Canada. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, Slovenia has just over 1,000 registered hockey players, a far cry from the nearly 640,000 in Canada.

The Slovenian coach, Nik Zupancic, acknowledged that his team, which will be participating in the Olympics for only the second time, was in a tough position.

"Our range for the national team is very small," Zupancic said. "We're lucky because, except for one player, everyone else plays outside the country. That brings us quality in the national team."

Prospal said the Czechs would send a quality team to South Korea, regardless of whether it has NHL players at its disposal.

"I wouldn't say that any other country has an advantage," Prospal said. "I would actually say that Czechs will be the ones to have the advantage because we don't have as many players in the NHL as we used to."

Although the NHL said the door is closed regarding player participation in Pyeongchang, the International Ice Hockey Federation remains hopeful that a deal can be reached. At a news conference in Paris on Tuesday, Rene Fasel, the federation's president, restated his hopes to have the world's best players in South Korea.

"I'm an optimistic guy," Fasel said.

If NHL players do not participate in the Olympics, "the fans will not be happy," he said. "The players will not be happy. I hope you media will not be happy. And the whole world will not be happy."

Fasel also revealed that the federation was engaged in talks with the NHL Players Association and its executive director, Donald Fehr. The two communicate several times per week. Last month, the union said it "adamantly" disagreed with the NHL's "shortsighted" Olympic decision.

NHL owners and officials do not like shutting down the league for a few weeks during the Olympics and exposing their best players to the risk of injury halfway around the world. The league has sought financial, marketing and sponsorship concessions from the International Olympic Committee.

"We are trying to find a way to convince Gary to change his opinion," Fasel said of Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner.

Throughout his news conference, Fasel expressed surprise and disappointment regarding the NHL's stance. He noted that the league would still play 82 games and have four playoff rounds, not losing any revenue while showcasing its players on the international stage.

"Working together would be so much better," Fasel said. "We doing the grass roots and promoting the game, together with the NHL and KHL, and engage the 1.4 billion people in Asia."

But Fasel conceded that the International Ice Hockey Federation was preparing for the Olympics without NHL players. He suggested that the NHL's loss would be a boon for the Russia-based KHL, which has 29 teams across eight countries, including China.

"On the other side, what we will do if the NHL is not coming for sure, we will work with China and the KHL that is present in China," Fasel said.

Many NHL veterans have accepted that the Olympics will not be on their schedule next year. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers has been Sweden's starting goalie at the Olympics since 2006, when he won a gold medal. Now 35, Lundqvist headed to the world championship after the Rangers were eliminated from the playoffs to join the Swedish team, which is captained by his twin brother, Joel.

"I haven't played with my brother in 12 years, and also the fact that we're not part of the Olympics," Henrik Lundqvist said. "I see this as an opportunity to play for my country one more time and with my brother."

Despite the NHL's insistence that it will not change its mind, Fasel portrayed a sense of hope and belief.

"I never give up until the end," he said.

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