How the Olympic hockey lists were filled out after the NHL withdrew

BEIJING – Early last fall, Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renny secretly called a retired scout named Blair McCase.

The threat of a coronavirus pandemic seems to have waned, but Renee was worried the NHL would abandon its plan to send players to the Beijing Olympics. This decision, if it comes, has promised to change Canada’s ambitions for a star list claiming medals.

Would McCase, Renny asked, stop his retirement and help develop an emergency plan? McCasey speculated that the project would be unnecessary, but agreed, and immediately began checking out dozens of players whose only plans for the 2022 Olympics were to watch them on television.

Now, less than two months after the NHL announced its retirement from the Games, urgent discussions, subtle strategies and covert analysis by hockey executives like McCasey will be tested on one of the biggest stages in the sport. The men’s Olympic tournament, largely populated by a mess of unexpected and unannounced players, opened on Wednesday when a preferred Russian team beat Switzerland 1-0.

The tournament, usually one of the most competitive and high-profile events of the Games, may now be one of the most unpredictable, a series of clashes decided by men who are essentially instant Olympians. Some are young players who have suggested that their Olympic aspirations can only be realized in four years. There are a few older men who think that their prospects of appearing at the Games for the first time or again are darkened. Most of the others probably believed they just weren’t good enough.

Until they suddenly got up.

“Things are going snowball in certain directions and they have gone the wrong way for these boys,” said Eric Staal, 37, captain of the Canadians. “And now, for other boys, they get a chance.” Staal, who last played in the NHL in the 2020-21 season and the 2010 Olympics, joked that he felt “well rested” for those games. .

Patt Nigel, the United States goalkeeper, said he knew his name appeared on fake Olympic lists shortly after the NHL announced its decision to retire days before Christmas. He said he then heard subsequent rumors of an invitation to the American team. But he tried not to hope.

“You don’t know: Are you on a big list?” A small list? How many boys are in it? ”He said.

Eventually, at the age of 34, he received his first Olympic invitation and called his parents. They were thrilled.

“You start to realize how big the deal is, maybe then you do it in your own head because you’re trying to stay calm,” Nagel said.

Active NHL players were also absent from the 2018 Games, but that decision was made about 10 months in advance.

The U.S. hockey team, announced less than a month ago and the youngest the country has sent to the games since 1994, includes only one player who has competed in a previous Olympics, Brian O’Neill. Seven players have at least some NHL experience, but 15 currently play NCAA hockey.

“We are no different from a bunch of teams in this tournament,” said American coach David Quinn. Quinn worked a little longer than his players had: he was promoted to head coach on December 27 after the NHL’s decision to play in the Games meant that the original choice, Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, could no longer. participates .

“You have to figure it out quickly and somehow get a sense of who can play well with whom, and some guys have had some experience playing with each other, so you start with that and then mix and match as you go,” Quinn said.

Some countries face less difficult circumstances than others due to the structure of their national teams. The availability of Swedish coach Johan Garpenlov does not depend on the NHL, for example. But Garpenlov was worried about the possibility of the Olympics without his best players and said he had two teams ready. One was known as the NHL scenario, while the other was the European scenario.

The bigger challenge, Garpenlov said, was preparing for the tournament, where other teams were also unstable.

“We did our job with what we could do,” he said. “But in the end, Americans and Canadians, we didn’t study them until we made the decision.

Once conceived as a huge player with all NHL stars like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, the Canadian roster is now more or less the product of a rampage from end to end of the country’s talent pipeline. Staal is 37, but Canada also brought the top promising Mason McTavish, the center, who turned 19 on January 30.

Canadian officials struggling to complete their roster weighed in on dozens of potential players, taking into account not only their skills but also whether their teams would make them available for the Games.

In the end, however, out-of-sight film sessions and quiet conversations with coaches had to give way to more intense evaluations, so Canadian officials chose to use an international tournament in Russia in mid-December as a laboratory to assess whether their greatest prospects they may be able to withstand the harshness of the Olympics. (The Canadians had planned a second similar attempt for another event, but the race was canceled.)

To entice the players of Channel One Cup, Canadian officials sometimes explained that they might end up in Beijing.

The answers, McCase said, are equally positive.

“It’s one thing to go to Channel 1 or Spengler,” he said, “but it’s quite another to have a kettle with fish when you can have a chance to go to the Olympics.”

Jordan Will, who has 218 NHL games in his autobiography, admitted that the Olympic underwater moment agreed to play, but said he tried to drive Beijing out of his mind. “You knew you were on the radar and things like that, so you’re just trying to go there, have fun, play hockey and hope for the best,” he said.

Now he and the other instant Olympians are in Beijing, navigating the storm of pandemic protocols, training and media duties and even a team competition for the best decorated apartment in the Olympic Village. (“What would our significant others do?” Will said of his group’s strategy.)

O’Neill, the only member of the U.S. team with previous Olympic experience, said his absence elsewhere on the list was not necessarily worrying.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s a huge benefit, because being naive in a moment like this, I think, can be positive.”

However, the Olympic novelty goes beyond the players themselves. These are the first games for the 66-year-old McCase. Despite all his recent research, he, like Garpenlov, is not quite sure what to expect.

“Most people will turn on their TVs and not recognize 90 percent of the players,” he said. “You will see players – and there are always players or athletes who come out of nowhere and somehow take over or dominate the situation, the stage – who become the players you have to watch.”

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