Once the NHL “leaves” the Winter Olympics, which it almost certainly will after Vancouver 2010, the gold medal in men’s hockey will mean about as much to most North American fans as who won the KHL championship last year.
Without NHL player involvement, the Olympic hockey portion of the event will turn into a slightly larger sized extension of a Junior A or NCAA tournament.
And beyond inflating the medal count of three nations by one each, the competition will be transformed from a chase for true international hockey supremacy, into a minor showcase for potential NHL talent.
For players either too young or not quite good enough for the NHL, this competition, every four years, may provide an opportunity to gain some significant notoriety, while available players from the KHL and other European hockey leagues should enjoy domination.
For a country like Canada, short of enticing and funding top players to play for their National team full time, they will have to go back to the tradition of sending, more or less, the best Junior team. But within this new order will exist an underlying excuse that will become the mantra for any countries who fail to bring home the gold.
“It wasn’t our best players.”
And it will be a mantra steeped in truth and, for many, regret.
As we slowly watch the demise of highest-level country-centric hockey competitions, the World Junior Tournament and the IIHF World Hockey Championships may experience a surge of importance, but with interest in the World Junior Tournament as spotty as it is currently, and the participation in the WHC as inconsistent as it has been, it’s unlikely that either of these will ever match the true degree that the 2010 Olympic hockey competition did. Then we’ll only have memories.
Or, perhaps, the creation, or better stated, “re-creation” of a proper World Cup of Hockey with full NHL participation—one that runs opposite to the NHL regular and post season as some others have—will provide the necessary stage for determining bona-fide hockey supremacy.
For those of you who care nothing for the question of world hockey supremacy, you’ll no doubt go back to your respective home teams and throw your allegiance back behind organizations that, for the most part, are just some rich person’s / corporation’s property, and your world will largely be unaffected.
But for those of us who savor the purest demonstration of international hockey competition involving all of the world’s best players, the future may be bleak.
What a treat it is to watch Evgeny Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuck, and Maxim Afinogenov playing on the same line while Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Ovechkin play on another.
What a gift it is to see Ryan Miller playing on the same team as Jamie Langenbrunner, Zac Parise, and Paul Stastny. These are almost impossible scenarios given the parity and salary cap structure of the NHL—except in the case of an All-Star game, which we all know just isn’t the same as serious competition.
Take some time people. Savor these moments, because they’re very special—and soon—they may become very rare.