Part of the appeal of an Olympic Games is seeing the very best athletes in the world compete against each other.
Unfortunately, at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, ice hockey fans looking to watch the best in their field ply their trade would have been better served watching the National Hockey League (NHL).
After all, that’s where arguably the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, was in action — and scoring his 500th NHL goal no less — for the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a 5-4 overtime win against the Flyers in Philadelphia.
So, too, was the greatest goal-scorer of the 21st century, Russian legend Alexander Ovechkin, who also scored, twice, as his Washington Capitals thumped the Nashville Predators 4-1.
Even as the first game of the day’s play at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing was underway – a thrilling quarter final between the USA and Slovakia — the LA Kings were being thrashed 5-2 by the Edmonton Oilers … but more on that later.
As disappointed as supporters of ice hockey will be not to see their stars at an Olympics for the first time since 2014, it’s not a result of the players not wanting to come — and there was plenty of action to get excited about anyway.
Of course, for several decades, NHL professionals were not allowed at the Games, leaving Western amateurs to the mercy of Soviet “shamateurism” — the USSR won nine straight Olympic medals between 1956 and 1988, including seven gold.
The NHL first allowed its players to compete in 1998, 12 years after the IOC first allowed professionals to contest for medals but, since then, there has only been five occasions where NHL players have graced the Olympic rinks.
In 2018, the NHL made the call — due to a disagreement about who would cover the costs of insuring the athletes at the Games and the disruption it would have on their season — to deny players an Olympics pass, much to the chagrin of the players association, who called the decision “short-sighted”.
The players made sure that, in their collective bargaining agreement signed in 2020, that there would be time allocated for players to participate in Beijing.
However, in December, alongside a reluctant players association, the NHL withdrew that option.
COVID-19 meant that 49 games had been postponed, all of which needed to be made up in the only time possible: the space that had been allocated to the Games.
Close to 100 matches have since been moved into that gap, meaning team owners were unwilling to release their charges for a shot at Olympic glory.
The players were not best pleased about it, though, especially considering they were the drivers of wanting to appear for their country in the first place.
In an interview with The Athletic, Canadian star with the Oilers, Connor McDavid, said the whole thing was “so disappointing”.
At the time of the announcement, Crosby, a 34-year-old who already has two gold medals from Vancouver and Sochi — the last time NHL players were allowed at the Games — said that it was “difficult to kind of wrap your head around” that he would not be able to go this year.
Despite the absence of NHL stars, the hockey continues apace at the National Indoor Stadium and Wukesong Sports Centre.
No miracle on ice this time for Team USA
In the men’s competition, the USA met Slovakia in the quarter finals.
The United States won their pool by going through undefeated, which included an 8-0 thumping of China and a 4-2 victory over Canada — only its fourth win over the Canadians in Olympic history.
Shorn of its NHL stars, the 25-man American roster consisted of 15 NCAA (college) players, with two from the second-tier American Hockey League and eight from an assortment of European leagues.
American hockey’s greatest moment came thanks to a team of college students when they stunned the world at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics by beating the mighty Soviet Union in their penultimate game of the tournament, going on to win the gold medal as a result.
However, there were to be no miracles this time around as Slovakia inflicted a famous defeat on the Stars and Stripes, who have been knocked out at the quarter-final stage for the second-straight Games.
Slovakia, who were defensively fragile through a group stage in which they won just one of their three games, came out firing in a tremendously hard-fought contest, frequently testing Strauss Mann, who currently plays professionally in Sweden.
Mann was solid early, but conceded when Juraj Slafkovský — the 17-year-old who is shaping to be a first-round draft NHL pick this year — capitalised on some slack US defence that allowed him all the time in the world, bang in front, to be picked out by Peter Ceresnak on the right.
The USA were not behind for long when Harvard forward Nick Abruzzese finished in front of the net with just 45 seconds remaining in the first period after some superb flowing transition out of defence by Kenny Agostino and Steven Kampfer.
USA then took the lead in the second period through former NHL player Sam Hentges, who was teed up by Nick Perbix.
However, Slovakia — who were getting increasingly frustrated by some refereeing decisions — continued to fight, leaving the net empty in the closing seconds in an attempt to force an equaliser.
That’s when skipper Marek Hrivik stepped up, sending the Slovak bench wild with just 44 seconds left on the clock.
That meant overtime, an exhaustingly frenetic 10-minute period of three-on-three, sudden death action, with a spot in the semi-finals on the line.
There was less of the bone-shuddering hits into the corners that sent the plexiglass swaying precariously with every thumping contact, but there was just as much intensity as both sides stared down their Olympic nightmare of an early elimination.
Neither side could breach the other’s defences in that period, despite both having chances, meaning a penalty shootout would decide who progressed.
The goal-tenders saved seven straight penalties before Slovak skipper Peter Cehlarik found a way past Mann.
USA captain Andy Miele could not replicate his opponent’s poise though, with Patrik Rybar making the save and sending the Slovaks into delirium — and a well-deserved full-bench pile on.