“So when do they play next?’’ an elevator eavesdropper asked two men discussing the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team before Thursday’s game between the Flyers and Columbus at the Wells Fargo Center.
“Um, 2022,’’ came the response.
Just like that, sometime in the dark of night, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, the 2018 U.S. Olympic hockey team slipped away quietly at the Pyeongchang Olympics, winning both of its games against Slovakia, losing to Slovenia, the athletes from Russia and finally, in a shootout early Wednesday, to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
A team composed of mostly anonymous players ended just as anonymously, their dream of playing for their country fulfilled, their dream of Olympic glory as distant as when they were selected to the team late last year.
“The one thing that we wanted to make sure of when we came into this tournament is that when it ended we’d be proud of how we represented our country,” said Tony Granato, the U.S. head coach. “I’m very proud of how we competed and how we played and how we represented our country from the start of the tournament to the end of it.’’
He should be. The players on this team, which included four natives of the Philadelphia area, may have expected more, but their country didn’t. Theirs was a team assembled in part from what amounted to be a three-game tryout at the Deutschland Cup, composed of players the NHL had long given up on, if they were even good enough to be considered in the first place.
Seeking to stave off embarrassing scores, Jim Johannson, the late Team USA general manager, built a defense-first team and it showed. Only once in their five games did they score more than two goals. They were 0-for-5 on the power play in their 3-2 shootout loss to the Czechs and went 0-for-5 in the deciding shootout, too. Five of their 11 goals were scored by Harvard’s Ryan Donato, one of the few players on the roster with a birth year from the 1990s. Troy Terry of the University of Denver had five assists. Jordan Greenway of Boston University scored a goal and was a much-needed physical presence.
“They are fearless,’’ U.S. goalie Ryan Zapolski told ESPN during the tournament. “They are just kids having fun. A lot of guys are 12 to 13 years older than them, and when you see the fun and the attitude they play with, it rubs off on a lot of us.’’
Not enough. Zapolski played spectacularly at times. But Johannson’s premise that the stage would be too big for an all-star squad of American college players proved a paradox. They shined. The veteran pros collected from the rosters of various European leagues made very little noise.
And attracted very little. Rene Fasel, the sometimes belligerent International Ice Hockey Federation president, blamed high ticket prices and the game’s low profile in the host country for crowds of under 5,000 for all but the final few games. When he was asked toward the end of the two-week tournament whether the lack of NHL players might have also affected those numbers, he said, “Maybe.’’
Ya think? Fasel of course, is part of the reason they were not there, his oft-contentious power struggle with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners he represents leading to the league’s unpopular decision to bypass Pyeongchang. But Bettman has said the decision not to send NHL players was about shutting down the league for three weeks and the lost revenue that entails, as well as the risk of injury that Olympic participation and a condensed schedule impose, and the cost to the league to staff a team and send it over there.
It’s no secret that China represents a market the NHL is interested in. A thinly veiled attempt by Fasel to link the NHL’s participation in this Olympics with the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing was met with a shrug by Bettman last spring. As the 2018 Olympic tournament fizzed out like a wet fuse this week, so too did Fasel’s combative rhetoric about Beijing in 2022.
“I really hope in 2019, 2020, we can have some discussion and they can make a decision,” he said.
Speaking Friday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Bettman, though, doubled down, mentioning all the aforementioned disruptions and dangers. He’d like his league to play in the summer Games, he said, where the sport debuted in 1920.
Is he negotiating? Probably.
Will it work?
Well, as the elevator eavesdropper’s question sure implied, the Winter Olympics need the NHL more than the NHL needs them.