Jack Eichel traveled to Innsbruck, Austria, to be part of the 2012 Youth Olympic Games, and he was blown away. More than 1,000 athletes from 69 countries gathered in the Alps for an unforgettable 10-day experience.
“The entire city we were in was completely transformed for the event,” Eichel said Tuesday. “To think of how special that event was and how good it was, just to imagine what the Olympics is like, it’s probably that multiplied by 100.”
As of now, the Sabres center will just have to guess what the Olympics are like. The NHL has declared it’s not going to South Korea in 2018. Eichel, who was likely to represent the United States, is disappointed by the decision.
“It’s something the whole world looks forward to, us included,” Eichel said in KeyBank Center. “In terms of trying to grow our game, I think it could have been a good opportunity for us and usually is. I think it’s a good way to bring our country together.
“It’s tough. You grow up watching and get to the point of playing professionally, and then it kind of goes away. A little bit sad.”
Other Buffalo players affected by the decision echoed Eichel’s comments.
“It’s unfortunate,” said defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who played for Russia in the World Cup. “It’s not only every hockey player’s dream, but every athlete wants to go to the Olympics and represent their countries. I think it’s a huge honor, and it’s unfortunate that NHL players are going to miss out on such a great event.
“I just think it’s the wrong decision.”
Goaltender Robin Lehner was 14 years old when his Swedish countrymen won gold in the 2006 Olympic Games. He also believes the NHL is missing an opportunity to grow the game.
“It’s something I think everyone follows,” Lehner said. “That’s the biggest sporting event in the world. When the Olympics are on, I watch a lot of sports that I’d never seen before, and I think it’s pretty cool. I think it’s the same way for hockey, you know? People that really haven’t followed hockey get to tune in and become fans of a new sport.”
Forward Zemgus Girgensons represented Latvia in the 2014 Olympics. His country didn’t qualify for the next Games, so he was hesitant to weigh in.
“Just being around all those athletes and seeing the Olympics and being part of it is definitely something special,” he said. “At the end, it’s business. It’s their decision. It’s nothing we really can affect right now.”
There are plenty of players pushing back. Russian star Alex Ovechkin reiterated Tuesday he plans to leave the Washington Capitals during the Olympics and represent his country. He’s hopeful a deal can be salvaged.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma sees both sides of the argument.
“I have a feeling about the Olympics from both a fan’s perspective and a coach’s perspective,” Bylsma said. “Most of my feelings are from a fan perspective. I think the Olympics is the best tournament in the world, and I like it when the best players are playing in the best tournament in the world.
“As an NHL coach and team-wise, it’s stuck in the middle of your season. It’s a three-week break. It condenses the rest of the schedule. I wish there was some way it could not be right in the middle of a season and what it does to the season, even what it does to your players that go over and play.
“I’m somewhat disappointed that the best players aren’t going to be playing in the best tournament, but I also understand it from the league side and the coaches’ side where it’s a tough tournament to send your players to and play in.”
Kyle Okposo will miss his fourth straight game Wednesday when the Sabres host Montreal. The right winger has a mysterious illness that has lingered for a week.
“Kyle’s still dealing with sickness and illness,” Bylsma said. “He has gone through some testing with our docs just trying to get more information about it.”
Bylsma had no further information. He said earlier in the week it’s not mumps, which has hit several NHL players.
C.J. Smith and Alex Nylander made their NHL debuts the past two games. That meant two forwards had to come out. It’s not an easy scenario for the scratched players who’ve been here all year, including Matt Moulson on Monday.
Like Smith, defenseman Jake McCabe was once the late-season college signee.
“I was in the same shoes as C.J., and it’s not the easiest thing coming into a room after college,” McCabe said. “Guys obviously aren’t the happiest right now with the spot we’re in, and unfortunately guys are going to have to come out of the lineup, too.
“They just need to understand that they can play at this level and what it takes to play at this level on a consistent basis.”