John Niyo

Niyo: NHL’ers lament trailing the play on Olympics fun

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His friends are there. Many of his former teammates are, too.

“And it’s really tough when they start sending me all the pictures,” said Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings’ forward, sitting in front of his locker stall Tuesday morning as the Red Wings prepared to face the Anaheim Ducks at Little Caesars

Arena.

That’s because his country is there — at the 2018 Winter Olympics — and Tatar, a proud Slovakian hockey star, is here, along with the rest of his NHL brethren, wondering why.

For the first time since 1994, the league and its owners decided not to participate in the Olympics, opting to protect their own business interests while robbing us all of another showcase event for the sport. Of the chance to see Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau leading a new generation of U.S. stars against Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby and the mighty Canadians. Of Alex Ovechkin teaming up with Evgeni Malkin again, and Erik Karlsson pairing up with Viktor Hedman, and Henrik Lundqvist matching saves with Carey Price.

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“It’s a huge disappointment,” said Tatar, who figures to be up early this morning watching Slovakia begin play in the Olympic men’s tournament against the Russian team — or whatever we’re supposed to call them — featuring former Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, among others.

His coach, Jeff Blashill, also planned to tune in this morning — the U.S. opens against Slovenia — along with his dad, Jim, ahead of the Wings’ annual father-son road trip to Tampa and Nashville. Blashill coached Team USA at last spring’s world championships, and he talked Tuesday about his excitement for all the coaches and players getting a chance to live out a lifelong dream in South Korea.

Guys like defenseman Chad Billins, the Marysville native who played collegiately at Ferris State and for Blashill in Grand Rapids when the Griffins won the Calder Cup in 2013. Since then, he’s gotten only a taste of the NHL life — 10 games with the Calgary Flames — while playing professionally in Sweden and Russia.

“Whoever is wearing that American sweater is gonna feel a ton of pride,” Blashill said, “and we’re gonna be cheering them on.”

No miracle moments

And who knows how this Olympic tournament will turn out? There will never be another Miracle on Ice — a team of American amateurs facing down the Soviets’ Big Red Machine — but this should be a competitive event with some spirited play in South Korea.

It just won’t be the kind of hockey we’ve been treated to since the NHL embarked on this Olympic odyssey 20 years ago. It started with Dominik Hasek’s remarkable performance at those 1998 Nagano Games. It continued with Canada ending its 50-year gold-medal drought in Salt Lake City four years later. And who can forget that thrilling championship game between the U.S. and Canada in Vancouver in 2010, capped by Sidney Crosby’s golden goal?

Not Ryan Kesler, certainly.

The Livonia native was in town with the Ducks on Tuesday, and when I asked him about the Olympics, his answer began with a sigh of resignation. Kesler was a part of that “unbelievable” Olympic final in Vancouver — he even scored the Americans’ first goal — and though he and the rest of the U.S. were gutted by the overtime loss, he still views it as one of the highlights of his career.

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“At the end of the day, I think the Olympics is the biggest stage you can play on and it does a lot for the sport and the NHL,” Kesler said. “So in hindsight, I think they made a mistake.

“But it’s not my decision.”

No, the decision belongs to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who serves at the pleasure of the league’s owners. And those owners have never been all that pleased with this Olympic idea. So give Bettman credit for convincing some of them to agree to it in the first place, brokering a deal back in the mid-1990s when the league’s revenue was still measured in millions, not billions. But then do the same for turning the Olympics into a collective bargaining chip and then folding a winning hand when the money-grubbing International Olympic Committee refused to ante up.

‘Answers don’t make sense’

The IOC wasn’t going to pay the NHL’s estimated $20 million tab for insurance, travel and accommodations. The Olympic committee also hoards just about everything else from the Games, which explains why an exasperated Bettman, who knows another lockout is looming in 2020, started to sound like one of his owners as negotiations went nowhere, “If they don’t value our participation, why are we going?”

“The fact is, we find — the clubs find, the owners find — that the Olympics are very disruptive on our season,” Bettman said last month at the NHL All-Star game in Tampa. “And for that and a whole host of reasons we’ve been over repeatedly over the last year or so, it didn’t make sense for us to attend.”

For the players, though, it’s a different story.

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“I think their answers don’t make any sense,” Tatar said. “Obviously, they made it work somehow in previous years. So that’s kind of frustrating. Why couldn’t we do it this year?”

One tangible reason? Several NHL players were injured at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, most notably the Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg and the Islanders’ John Tavares, both of whom were lost for the rest of the NHL regular season. The compressed schedule in an Olympic year also leads to fear and loathing, as does the inequity with some teams sending several more players into harm’s way than others do.

All that angst only added ammunition for the owners who wanted nothing to do with the Olympics, shutting down their league for three weeks in the middle of February, right after the NFL season ends. The league claims it didn’t gain much from its handful of Olympic interludes, outside of the two times the Games were held in North America. Not coincidentally, both those Olympic tournaments ended with gold-medal games featuring the U.S. and Canada.

And yet how often do we hear Bettman & Co. talking about trying to grow the game and expand the NHL’s global footprint? The league will begin next season with teams playing games in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. (“That’s more taxing on the (players’) bodies than the Olympics, and they think that’s OK,” Kesler noted.) And it began this season playing exhibition games in China, part of an effort in that country to grow the game with the Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“You cannot develop an international strategy or establish a presence for the business without these events and without these games,” Bettman said.

But what about these Games, then?

“I don’t think any of us players understand why we’re not there, to be honest with you,” said the Wings’ Gustav Nyquist, who brought home a silver medal with Team Sweden four years ago in Sochi. “The possibility that we would get two Olympics in a row over there and it’s a big market in Asia, it would seem like a good idea to have us play, opening up new opportunities and growing the game.”

He paused and shrugged, before summing up a frustration that’s widely shared.

“It’s out of our hands,” Nyquist said. “But it’s a shame that we’re not there.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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