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Olympic hockey: NHL players left behind say they'll still watch

It will be a tournament going on halfway across the world, in the middle of their season and with games often being played in the dead of night in the United States or Canada. And while many NHL players remain disappointed they won't be playing in the Pyeongchang Olympics, they still think it will be hockey worth watching.

Out of sight, out of mind? No way.

"More than anything we want to be there, be representing our country, especially on as big a stage as the Olympics is," Chicago Blackhawks star and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane told The Buffalo News during the NHL's recent All-Star Weekend in Tampa. "But if you come across those games – and a lot of us will be searching for them – they'll be fun to watch. It will be fun to see what those games are like."

Not since 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, has the NHL been out of the Olympics. It's anyone's guess what will happen in this tournament. The team dubbed "Olympic Athletes from Russia" features KHL players that include former NHL stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk and might be the favorite. Former Sabres Brian Gionta (USA) and Derek Roy (Canada) are expected to be linchpins for their countries. Finland and Sweden would be feared opponents filled with NHLers. Now? It's anybody's guess.

And it's hard to ignore what we lost out on. Connor McDavid joining Sidney Crosby on Team Canada. Kane joining forces for the first time on Team USA with the likes of Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. Patrik Laine and Rasmus Ristolainen starring for Finland, and Henrik Lundqvist perhaps getting one final chance with Sweden.

"I'm interested to see how it plays out," said McDavid, the scoring sensation of the Edmonton Oilers who would have been playing in his first Games. "I'm looking forward to watching it. There's still so many good names on many teams. You're taken aback at how many good players are playing around the world that aren't in the NHL."

"The emotional negativity, most of the players are over it that we're not going to be there and knowing it for so long," said Eichel, the 21-year-old Sabres star who would have also been making his Olympic debut. "I think it will still be pretty cool. I'm going to put it on right away. I want to watch the Olympics, watch guys playing that I know. I'm excited to watch it."

Looking back at Sabres, Buffalo ties to Winter Olympics

How did we get here?

A quick refresher on why the NHL isn't in South Korea this month:

It came down to a dispute between the league and the International Olympic Committee, which balked at paying for the travel and insurance costs it had covered through the first four Olympics featuring NHL players.

When the IOC made its decision, the International Ice Hockey Federation stepped in and offered to pay up to $20 million to cover those costs. But even with the money in hand, the NHL continued to struggle with its decision. While players love the Games, owners do not.

Owners weren't interested in seeing their players take flights of 14-16 hours and risk injury for three weeks in a best-on-best tournament. It's one thing for the games to be in Vancouver or Salt Lake. It's another thing entirely to be in South Korea and have games on television in the wee hours of the morning.

Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden tends goal against Canada during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal game in Sochi, Russia. (Getty Images)

Ryan Miller (39) of USA and Sidney Crosby (87) of Canada shake hands after the ice hockey men's gold medal game between USA and Canada on day 17 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on Feb. 28, 2010, in Vancouver, Canada. Canada defeated USA 3-2 in overtime. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Olympic participation has traditionally forced a compacted schedule to the NHL season, forcing all 82 games into the October-to-April period over perhaps an extra week. Many in the game feel that's a recipe for injury or a poor product.

And sending the NHL to the Olympics comes at a time right after the Super Bowl and right before baseball spring training games start. Many owners don't like shutting down the league in February, when it's only competing against the NBA and college basketball.

"The fact is that we find, the clubs find, the owners find that the Olympics are very disruptive on our season," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said during his annual state-of-the-game news conference in Tampa. "And for that and a whole host of reasons we've been over repeatedly over the last year or so, it didn't make sense for us to attend. Could that circumstance change at some point in the future? I suppose so. But it's not something that we're currently contemplating."

'You just have to move on from it'

The players have had to deal with the disappointment over the league's decision.

"Am I bitter that the NHL is not going and that I might not have an opportunity to be part of it? Yeah. Obviously," Eichel said. "But I think you just have to move on from it. You're happy for the guys that are going. It's going to be interesting, an open field that I think anybody can win."

"Once you know you're not going, you kind of turn it off and you don't think about it," said Crosby, a reluctant hero to the home folks in Pittsburgh for sending Canada past Team USA eight years ago. "You're thinking about your team, especially with the situation we're in. We're in a pretty tight playoff race."

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette sees all sides of the argument. As a minor leaguer, he got to play for Team USA in 1988 in Calgary and again in '94 in Norway. Then he coached the 2006 team in Turin, Italy.

"The Olympics are a pretty special event with the best players in a country representing their country," Laviolette said. "The NHL has the best players in the world so to not go, you're removing that. It does provide more stability in that it reduces the risk of injury, reduces the strain of travel on the players, the physical taxing on them by going over.

"In the next breath, if I'm watching on TV or fortunate enough to be working it, it's the best players in the world and it's pretty awesome. It is what it is. It's not happening. The players stay here and that means it provides more stability and makes the players fresher for the playoffs here."

Future is uncertain

The Olympics figure to become a political football in the next round of CBA talks, which could begin in the fall of 2019. The Olympics were not included in the current CBA signed to end the 2012-13 lockout and that was certainly a mistake by the players union.

“No one envisioned that the owners would take this kind of view, whic is basically just short-sighted and clearly, as we see it, contrary to the best interests in the game,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told Sportsnet radio in Toronto earlier this season. "There was always a generalized understanding that we’d look at the situation and if we didn’t have costs, we’d figure out a way to do it.”

The prevailing wisdom is that the NHL wants to be in Beijing in 2022 because China is one of its most desired frontiers. The league will play preseason games there in September for the second straight year and is expected to entertain the idea of coming back to the Games in four years. The IOC, in particular, wanted to pair Pyeongchang with Beijing as a package deal but it's likely all sides will continue to talk.

Players don't like the fact they've lost a once-every-four-years chance to compete. Kane, for instance, is 29 this year. He'll be 33 in 2022 and near the end of his likely window to make the team and play in the Games.

"You never know. We'll see what the future holds in that regard," Kane said. "We've got so many great young American players that could have been on that team. If you're in any type of international tournament, it would be fun to get a team together of those guys like Eichel, Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, Brock Boeser, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, young American hockey players who have taken the game by storm. The future is bright for USA Hockey and hopefully I get a chance to play with those guys at some point."

But for 2018, it's an opportunity lost for the NHL. There will be no highlight-reel moments added to the litany of great moments the NHL's Olympic foray has created. No Dominik Hasek winning the gold-medal shootout for the Czech Republic in Nagano, no Golden Goal from Crosby in Vancouver, no Team Canada loonie buried at center ice like the one that spurred a gold-medal run in 2002 at Salt Lake City.

"The game is at a very good point with the number of new faces that are coming in the league, as well as the guys that have been around a while," McDavid said. "That's why I think the Olympics would have been so interesting this year."

Still, while the star power will be way down, curiosity should fuel plenty of interest as the tournament moves on.

"You'll see players on those teams you know and it you'll want to see where they're at, where their games are at," Kane said in Tampa. "I played with (longtime NHL defenseman) James Wisniewski for a while. He had a bunch of major knee surgeries and he's playing. It's a cool story for a lot of different players, whether it's their first time playing at that high a level or they're bouncing back and getting another opportunity. It's good for them. But ask all of us here if we want to be there, we'd say we want to be playing."

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