The Men’s Hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics has been, in a word, interesting. Without NHL players, the competition has been tough, but lacks star quality.
The trip for the Americans has been eventful to say the least, with an opening loss to Slovenia in overtime despite leading 2-0. A win over the Slovaks got the Americans into the win column before a 4-0 drubbing by the Olympic Athletes from Russia.
The U.S. stayed in contention with a knockout round win over Slovakia again and look to reach the medal rounds against Czech Republic Tuesday night.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the TV ratings for these games are slightly down as compared to Sochi four years ago. The easy explanation for that is the exclusion of NHL players. This raises the question: what changes could be made to make the men’s tournament the must-see event, much like it was eight years ago in Vancouver?
Get the NHL players back
This is the most obvious answer, but also the most unlikely. There are three ways the NHL players saga ends in 2022 in Beijing. First, the NHL holds their position and doesn’t allow players to go. Second, the NHL allows players to go, but the IOC says they can’t play as a payback shot, taking away the potential of the NHL to make in-roads in China. Third, both parties come to an agreement and the NHL is back.
2022 is a long way away and much will change. Whether this topic is one that changes remains unknown.
Make it a U-23 tournament
If the IOC needs a template for hosting a tournament without a large chunk of the possible player pool, it needs to just look as far as men’s soccer in the Summer Games.
Players under the age of 23 are allowed to play in the Olympics, and each team is allowed three “senior” spots, allowing older players to get into the action.
For instance, the gold medal winning Brazil team featured Marquinhos, Rafinha, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar. Neymar was one of the three over-aged players on the roster, while the other three have made quite a name for themselves since Rio.
This structure makes for a template for hockey to take up. The Americans can field a squad of new faces that could become household names in the NHL after their Olympic experience.
In PyeongChang, critics have been quick to point out that the lack of NHL players could make for another 1980 “Miracle” storyline. It is worth noting that just three college players are on the current roster. If there really is another miracle, it needs to come from a team of college kids.
Move hockey to the Summer Games
Here lies the answer that checks all the boxes. The NHL is not playing yet, so players don’t have games in the league.
Should a player get injured at the Olympics, then there is time for them to recover.
If a player doesn’t get injured, then they are in better shape right at the beginning of the season.
The only real setback is the notion that hockey is a winter sport, which it undoubtedly is. But then again, so is basketball, and they play in the summer.
Hockey and basketball would have to duke it out scheduling wise, but how many people want to watch the Americans beat Spain (or Serbia) for another gold medal? At least the hockey tournament can provide more of a March Madness feel of unpredictability than basketball.