In sports, there are champions. They’re quite happy, what with the celebrations and the historic achievements and all. Then there are teams that are defeated so others can win championships. Depending on the expectations, they’re either content to have had the opportunity, or miserable for having blown one.
But then there’s a third category, which makes the melancholy of a runner-up look like the glint of a kitten’s smile by comparison: those teams that know, wholeheartedly, they could have won a championship but had the opportunity ripped away from them.
Not by an ill-timed injury or terrible officiating, because those things happen. No, by a bunch of gluttonous suits putting arguments about money over responsibility to sport, athletes and fans. People who restrict players from playing, or end seasons altogether, because of financial issues.
Which is why we lament the Montreal Expos of 1994, whose championship run was halted by the players’ strike that ended the season, or any number of teams — the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils among them — that never had a chance to win the 2004-05 Stanley Cup due to Gary Bettman’s lockout.
It is better to have played and lost than to have never played at all. Thus, there’s nothing worse than knowing that the U.S. men’s national Olympic ice hockey team was probably, finally going to win the tournament this year — and that’s been ripped away from us.
The NHL’s decision to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics pulled a gold medal off the necks of the Americans. I can see this as vividly as any Montrealer in the mid-1990s could see Pedro Martinez covered in champagne in the Expos’ post-World Series clubhouse. This cosmic alignment among generations of star players has been a decade in the making and might never happen again.
“It’s pretty disappointing, obviously,” said Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, the 20-year-old American phenom who would have been the team’s No. 1 center. “We have a lot of young Americans in the NHL now. It would have been nice to play with them.”
Yeah, no kidding.
Before we begin, a quick reminder of how we got here.
The NHL has been sending players to the Olympics since 1998. Its owners have grown more flustered with each Olympiad because they don’t see the value in shutting down their season for two weeks and sending their assets to the Winter Games in order to make someone else money.
They are essentially correct in this assessment: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) gets all the shine from NHL stars but doesn’t share its spotlight with the NHL itself. No branding, no logos, no merchandise and certainly not a hint of profit-sharing. So the NHL, not really concerned with the South Korean market to begin with, dug its skates in and asked for IOC concessions. Then it tossed away whatever goodwill it garnered in this fight by immediately turning the issue into a chip in their collective bargaining poker game with the NHL Players’ Association, asking them for concessions in exchange for the NHL’s acquiescing to those from the IOC.
The standoff never ended, and the NHL skipped the Winter Olympics.
In doing so, it prevented the long-anticipated blending of USA Hockey’s incredible generation of young stars with its veteran standard-bearers. Or, to put it in simple terms, taking the underwhelming Team USA roster from the World Cup of Hockey, cutting off the gristle, and then replacing it with Team North America filet mignon.
Every so often I look at this 2018 Team USA roster projection, and I weep like it’s the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s “Up.”
The carryovers: RW Patrick Kane, with nine points in 12 Olympic Games; RW Phil Kessel, 10 points in 12 Olympic Games; C Joe Pavelski, eight points in 12 Olympic Games; D Ryan Suter, a plus-11 in 12 Olympic Games; then you have Sochi Games goalie Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider in the net, and NHL vets like James van Riemsdyk, Blake Wheeler, Max Pacioretty and Ryan Kesler to fill out the roster. And if there’s a shootout, T.J. Oshie.
The new blood: C Auston Matthews, C Jack Eichel, LW Johnny Gaudreau, C Dylan Larkin, C Vincent Trocheck, LW Brandon Saad, D Shayne Gostisbehere, D Seth Jones, D Zach Werenski, D Jacob Trouba, G Connor Hellebuyck. That’s without D Charlie McAvoy and F Brock Boeser, rookies that would have also challenged for spots.
AFDSfdsfsad … sorry, got some drool on the keyboard and tried to wipe it up.
This would have been the deepest, most talented collection of centers the Americans would have had since Nagano in 1998, when Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick and Pat LaFontaine were on the roster. But they didn’t have the assemblage of talent on the wings that this team would have had. And they certainly didn’t have the mobility on defense that this group has — there aren’t any Keith Carneys or Derian Hatchers here.
Top to bottom, the 2018 Team USA squad would have been the most talented in history.
It would have hit the sweet spot across generations, giving veteran snipers some of the best young centers in hockey, giving veteran defensemen dynamic young playmakers with whom to pair, and giving the overall team unprecedented speed in an era that demands it.
We would have won gold.
OK, more to the point: We would have beaten Canada.
Feb. 28, 2010, was the greatest worst night of my life.
That was the night the Americans nearly did it. Nearly beat the Canadians when it mattered, instead of some preliminary round. Nearly avenged 2002 in Salt Lake City. Nearly earned bragging rights for winning on Canadian soil, on Vancouver ice. Nearly offered catharsis to players like Kane and Ryan Miller, who spun tales from youth hockey about being told they’re not good enough simply because they were born in the Lower 48.
The game ended with Sidney Crosby — of all people, of course it was Sidney Crosby — scoring an overtime goal against Miller, who was the primary reason the Americans were even in the gold medal game. My night ended, having written several stories of Canadian adulation while suffocating my bile with journalistic duty, by walking back to the house we were renting. The air was that not-cold-enough-for-winter type that lingered throughout the games. I looked down at my shoes, only to glance up occasionally down side streets that were still filled with Canadian fans reveling in the victory. It was in those moments when I knew, in my heart, that the Canadians winning gold was the only acceptable outcome. As much as it hurt.
Feb. 21, 2014, to put it in clinical terms, sucked.
I had watched the Americans defeat the Russians in Sochi on those T.J. Oshie shootout goals and believed we were witnessing a storybook being written, because the American hockey brain is tricked into believing such things when we unexpectedly beat the Russians.
But we saw something else against Canada: We saw a team that literally felt it didn’t belong on the same ice as their opponents, because they lacked the same level of offensive weaponry. That believed it didn’t have the talent to compete. That it had to win 1-0, so it played like it. We saw the same mentality at the World Cup, from the way it played to the construction of a team that — lest we forget — existed in 2016 and had Justin Abdelkader and David Backes on it.
February 2018, that mentality was going to be done. Finished. Over. The ice would have not been tilted to the Canadians, or to any team. It was going to be the first time in more than a decade that Team USA could trade blows with Canada and not pray their goalie stole the game, like we’re a slightly more talented Latvia. Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau alone change the game — when your No. 1 center has the skill set of Mario Lemieux and the determination to win of Jonathan Toews, the Americans’ default attitude setting wasn’t going to be defeatist.
I won’t go so far as to say that the NHL and the IOC conspired to keep players out of the 2018 Games to save Canada the embarrassment of getting dominated by the United States of America. But I won’t outright dismiss the theory.
I pray to the hockey gods that 2018 Team USA isn’t the 1994 Montreal Expos — that powers beyond their control haven’t slammed shut a championship window.
There’s a part of me that does, because in 2022 — provided the IOC, NHL and NHLPA all end their respective urination competitions — Kane, Kessel, Suter and Pavelski will all be four years older. The window for this excellent group of experienced Olympic veterans and dynamic newbies is open for the next month. After that, it’ll be a different team.
And yet, that’s where I’m optimistic about the next American Olympic team with NHL talent. Matthews (Arizona), Jones (Texas), Gostisbehere (Florida) and others are products of nontraditional markets. Those pipelines are now flowing with talent: The roster for the 2018 World Junior Championship spanned from Orlando to St. Louis to Minneapolis to Spokane. We’re casting a wider net for athletes and snagging better hockey players. No one ultimately knows how the pieces will fit, but a 2022 team with Matthews, Eichel, Jack Hughes and Casey Mittelstadt up the middle makes one start believing in the inevitability of a gold medal, rather than the dream of one.
But not in 2018. “The Inevitability” will be playing NHL regular-season games while the rest of us are watching “The Dream” play out for a disparate collection of American players in Pyeongchang.
Can the Americans win with a roster that includes Brian Gionta and … others? Sure, why not? It’s a chaotic, unpredictable short tournament where most teams are on equal footing and everyone’s one hot goalie away from a medal.
If there’s a silver lining to the NHL players staying home, it’s that Canada probably won’t win gold and that Russia probably will, only they can’t call themselves “Russia” because of the doping scandal, so it’s like Russia never won. There’s really nothing more appropriate in our current social climate than finding joy in the misery of others.
But for American hockey fans, our best chance to win gold in ages was stolen from us. To paraphrase the late Herb Brooks: “This was our time. Their time was done. It’s over.” I’ve been waiting my entire life for USA Hockey to win something significant enough so we can stop referencing two games played 38 years ago as the defining moment for a hockey nation.
I can wait four more years. But I also believe that this year was, in fact, the year.