Winter Olympics: Ice hockey not the same without NHL players

Jay Asser 21/02/2018
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The United States were eliminated by a shootout loss to the Czech Republic.

When you tune in to the Winter Olympics, you expect to see the top athletes in the world in their respective sports.

Well, that’s not the experience viewers have gotten with men’s hockey at Pyeongchang. Unlike the women’s event, which features the best of the best, the men’s tournament is completely devoid of the game’s most talented players.

You can thank the NHL for that. Back in April of last year, the league made the call to pass on sending its players to the Olympics, ending a run of five consecutive Games involving NHL names.

While the withdrawal comes at the detriment of hockey fans, if you put yourself in the NHL’s shoes, it’s completely understandable why they would say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to the Olympics.

At the end of the day, it was a business decision.

If the Olympics had been staged in North America, the cost benefit and convenience of playing in a more local market could have persuaded the league. But with the Games staged across the globe in South Korea, the nature of that market means little opportunity to grow the NHL brand. And with the time difference starting at 14 hours, TV viewership in North America is severely handicapped.

Then there’s what the NHL would be losing out on back home. Having an extended break at this time of the year, when the NFL is between the Super Bowl and draft, the MLB has yet to start spring training and the NBA is in the dog days of the regular season, would rob the league of its chance to capitalise on the relatively quiet landscape of American sports.

Throw in potential injuries suffered by star players at the Olympics and the argument for the NHL staying away becomes clearer.

With all that said, it just feels wrong to not be watching the best players in international sport’s biggest stage. What’s the point of the Olympics otherwise?

No offence to the players in this edition’s men’s event, or to the ‘Miracle on Ice’ of 1980 when amateur players from the United States shocked the Soviet Union, but the quality is not what it should be.

Maybe you wouldn’t be consistently tuning in to hockey at the Olympics without at least being a casual fan of the NHL, but it’s also possible that the league could have gained more than a few new followers off the back of the Games alone.

As far as this year goes, we’ll never know. But it’s fair to say that the NHL isn’t thriving enough for the league to play it this safe.

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Evgenia Medvedeva set to battle close friend Alina Zagitova in Winter Olympics free dance final

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Alina Zagitova starred on Friday.

Evgenia Medvedeva says she is preparing for “war” to deny her close friend Alina Zagitova Olympic figure skate gold after her compatriot set a new world record short programme on Wednesday.

Zagitova displayed maturity far beyond her 15 years in a spellbinding routine to music from the film Black Swan to earn a massive 82.92 points to lead the ladies competition.

Her flawless two-and-a-half minutes on the ice at the Gangneung Arena, featuring a complex triple lutz, triple toeloop combination, gave her a narrow advantage of 1.31 points over her training partner and buddy going into

Friday’s free dance final.

Their closest challenger is Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond on 78.87, with Japan’s Satoko Miyahara in fourth.

“We are friends, we are young girls, we can talk about anything with each other,” said Medvedeva, 18, who like Zagitova is making her Olympic debut.

“But on the ice, we must fight, I feel like it’s a little war, when you skate you are alone,” added the double world champion Zagitova said she is up to the challenge.

“I’ve said many many times, Evgenia and me are very good friends off the ice but in practice or competition I get this feeling of rivalry, it’s not bad or negative or malicious feeling of rivalry but it is there.”

Asked at the post short programme press conference about her maturity and serious nature Zagitova replied: “I am very calm, I don’t show emotions, I don’t splash them around.”

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 21: Evgenia Medvedeva of Olympic Athlete from Russia competes during the Ladies Single Skating Short Program on day twelve of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 21, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Evgenia Medvedeva in action.

Then almost apologetically she added: “This is how I am, it’s my nature.”

The two skaters are set to fight it out for what could be the first gold of the Games for the Olympic Athletes from Russia — who are competing as neutrals, after Russia were banned for doping.

Medvedeva refused to be drawn on the significance of that, commenting in English: “I’m trying not to think about medals, my main goal is to show a clean free skate, to be satisfied with my performance.”

Zagitova’s world record feat was all the more remarkable given she had watched Medvedeva a few minutes earlier breaking the record she had set last week in the team event with a score of 81.61.

“I was very happy when I saw the score, but I did not expect it,” the girl from the Western Urals said.

“This is the best performance of my life, but there is still room to grow.”

Zagitova has swept all before her in her first senior season, arriving in South Korea unbeaten in her four competitions, culminating in depriving Medvedeva of her European title in Moscow last month.

Medvedeva holds the world record for the free dance and combined, but the Muscovite knows she will have a herculean fight on her hands to deny Zagitova.

Medvedeva was beaten six points by Zagitova at the European Championships, the first time the pair had skated against each other in competition.

But she was also making her comeback in the Russian capital after a two-month hiatus recovering from a broken foot.

In her enforced absence Zagitova had stolen the skating spotlight, and on this form she may well do so again as she attempts to become the second youngest ladies Olympic skate champion behind American Tara Lipinski, who won the 1998 gold medal aged 15 years, eight months and 10 days.

They are trying to follow up Russia’s first ever women’s skate title in Sochi four years ago, with Medvedeva recalling: “I was only 14 then.

“I remember when Russia won gold (with Adelina Sotnikova), it was really amazing, I just sat in a chair and thought ‘I want the same feeling'”.

One of them is likely to experience that come Friday.

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