Jack Eichel treasures every moment that he's represented the United States on the international stage.
The Buffalo Sabres' 23-year-old captain competed in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, won a gold medal at the Under-18s, captained the country at the Under-20 world juniors and has competed in three world championships.
Eichel, however, has yet to realize his dream of competing in the Winter Olympics.
The National Hockey League remains reluctant to have its athletes compete in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, despite receiving verbal assurances from the International Ice Hockey Federation that address some of the issues that prevented the league from participating in 2018.
During his news conference with reporters at the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis, Commissioner Gary Bettman called the event "extraordinarily disruptive" because the league must shut down for two weeks every four years. While he and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have expressed pessimism, players around the league are hoping for a solution.
"I would love to," Eichel said. "Obviously, not going in 2018, but I take a lot of pride in playing for the United States and representing the country. It’s the only stage I haven’t represented the United States and USA Hockey on.
"It’s a dream of mine. I’m sure it’s a dream of anybody’s who has a lot of pride in where they’re from. I think it would be great."
According to the Associated Press, the NHL and its players' association attended a January meeting in New York where IIHF president Rene Fasel addressed a number of concerns, including players' travel and insurance costs.
While the verbal concessions appeared to be a significant step toward a solution, the NHL's scheduling concerns remain.
The NHL participated in five consecutive Olympic Games until 2018, when owners opposed having their players go to PyeongChang because of the 17-day break and injury risk. An average of 141 players attended the previous events. John Tavares, Aleksander Barkov and Henrik Zetterberg suffered significant injuries at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee also informed the NHL it would no longer pay for the league's participation costs associated with travel, insurance and accommodations for the players and their guests.
Though Fasel insisted the IIHF would cover those costs in 2018, Bettman balked at the idea because that could take funds away from important grassroots programs.
The Beijing Olympics present the league with an opportunity to grow the game's popularity in China.
Last April, the NHL opened a satellite office in Beijing as it works to expand its presence in the country, and the league held two preseason games in the country over each of the previous two seasons. Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin was dispatched to the country in August to serve as an ambassador for the league.
"I don’t think there’s a better opportunity to market this game internationally than that stage," Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe, the team's NHLPA representative, said. "It’s obviously a tough thing. I do understand where the owners are coming from, not wanting your players going over there midseason, but we always talk about growing the game.
"I do get it. I don’t want Jack going over there getting hurt, so for our team, you are selfish that you don’t want your best players going over there and possibly having an injury. But on a global scale – and I’m sure Jack would say this – if you can play in the Olympics, you’re going to play in the Olympics. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. ... I am definitely rooting for us to go back over there because it’s going to help grow our game and you want to see a best-on-best tournament."
The NHL does not plan to schedule preseason games in China next season because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, the health crisis caused the IIHF to cancel six world championship tournaments scheduled for this month and April.
Its top annual events – the men's world championship scheduled for May in Switzerland and women's world championship in Canada next month – have not been affected.
Switzerland's top professional league has postponed its playoffs after its final regular-season qualifying rounds were held in empty arenas. It's likely too soon for the coronavirus outbreak to have an impact on the NHL's potential participation at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Michael Frolik was only 10 years old when the NHL first participated in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, yet the Sabres winger recently recalled in vivid detail how 70,000 people gathered in Prague's Old Town Square to watch former Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek lead the Czech Republic to a gold medal.
Frolik, who later earned the nickname "Baby Jagr" because he grew up in the same Czech town as Jaromir Jagr, idolized players and was inspired by their magical run that included a championship win over Russia.
Frolik represented the Czech Republic at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, when they lost in the quarterfinals.
"To be able to be there with all the athletes in the same area, you can meet them, it was a very cool experience," said Frolik, now 32. "Growing up, I was obviously watching Nagano when we won. It was something special. It’s a big deal back home. For me, I would definitely like to play in that tournament. Hopefully they figure out a way to do that."
Frolik, though, acknowledged the challenges that come with an extended NHL break, even for those who compete in the Olympic Games.
Sabres coach Ralph Krueger brings a different perspective. He participated in four Olympic Games, three as coach of Switzlerand and one as a consultant for Canada in Sochi. Success at those tournaments helped grow the game at a grassroots level in Switzerland, which did not have a player in the NHL when Krueger became its coach in 1997.
Krueger said it is important to have the world's best players at the event, despite the obstacles.
"First and foremost, anything that develops the game internationally, for me, is a win," Krueger said. "The game of hockey has come so far in the last decade that it would be nice to show the world. Because you get so many eyes on you that you’ll never get outside of the Olympic Games. ... It’s amazing to be a part of that and to see what’s possible through the vehicle of sports and how people can work together no matter backgrounds and all of that enriches and deepens the way a player approaches.
"Would I love to see our top players there? Of course, because I know it’s a great experience. But I know there are business decisions to be made, too, and it’s going to fall with everything being weighed. I’m weighing more the sports and the emotional side of it, where I see nothing but wins."
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres