While on a personal level it can range from disappointing to horrible depending on one’s desire to play for his country and in the ultimate best-on-best hockey tournament, the decision not to send the NHL players to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could be a boon for the Vancouver Canucks.
So many of the team’s players might have been involved, risking their health on and off the ice and the possibility of getting stuck in China with crazy-long Covid protocols, the decision should come as a great relief to the organization. And while the situation on the ground in Beijing in February factored into the decision by the NHL, the bigger motivation was the status of players’ health now, the disruptions in the league’s schedule, and the opportunity to use that Olympic window to make up postponed games.
VHN has been writing about the Vancouver Canucks and their Olympic prospects since the summer, most recently in early November. Of the players on our list to definitely or likely play in Beijing, Canucks back-up goaltender Jaroslav Halak is affected the most.
Halak is 36-years-old and already named to the Slovakian Olympic team. In four years come Milano/Cortina 2026 in Italy, there’s a distinct possibility his career could be over, at least in the NHL. Of course, if he’s not playing in North America, there’s always a chance he could be taking a final curtain call back in his home country at age 40. Nevertheless, of all of the Canucks, the impact on Halak is the most clear-cut. At least he was able to make it earlier in 2010 for seven games and in 2014 for two more.
The next greatest impact could be felt by JT Miller, if not more so because he’s never played in the Olympics. He’ll be 32-years-old come 2026 and with the continued influx of talent into the NHL from the United States, making the team then over this year might be a much taller task. Miller was already humble regarding his prospects this winter.
“It’s not like I knew I had a spot on the team or anything,” Miller said after Canucks practice Tuesday. “So I definitely didn’t have my hopes up. It would have been an awesome experience but it’s also a situation where there’s a lot going on in the world right now, so I think we did it for the safety of the players and the players’ families, it is what it is.”
Miller won a Gold Medal with Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. He referred to the the Olympics as the “ultimate thing”.
“I spent a lot of time in USA Hockey when I was younger,” Miller said. “If the situation presented itself it would be amazing and it would be an honour to represent your country on that stage. So, it sucks that we’re not going to be a part of it, but I don’t even know if I was going to be on it anyways, so I wasn’t super excited to be a part of it. But again, wasn’t expecting it either, so just trying to work on going about my business here.”
It will be interesting to see his level of urgency or desire in four years.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old defenceman Quinn Hughes was a Team USA lock this year and will be again for Italy.
“For me, coming into the season, I didn’t like how the season went last year so my whole mindset, the reality, I was just focusing on this season and trying to have a good start to the season,” Hughes said. “I wasn’t really too consumed with the Olympics, and I’ve got to make the team first, so I was never really thinking about it on a day-to-day or week-to-week thing. Of course if the players were able to go and I was able to go it would be a really cool experience to represent your country and play at the highest level with all the players on the different teams. It would be incredible hockey so that part stinks.”
Yet, like with Miller, the reality of the ongoing Covid pandemic and his priority that is the Vancouver Canucks overshadowed any disappointment.
“I think as far as not going, there’s too many things, unknowns,” Hughes said. “Obviously it’s not up to me, it’s up to the older guys, but I think it was probably a good decision and we owe our (NHL) organizations the chance to be here, be healthy, and be ready to go.”
Thatcher Demko would have been in the mix as one of Team USA’s three goalies while forward Brock Boeser has recently been playing his way back into Olympic contention. Now we’ll never know their level of involvement.
“It’s a shame, I think the world loves the Olympics as far as the competition goes,” Canucks Head Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “As far as, some of these countries are extremely good, and we as Canadians always feel that we’re the best so we’d love to go there and prove it. But at the same time, safety first; I totally understand why the NHL has decided not to go and why the players have decided not to go.”
Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Elias Pettersson were locks for Team Sweden. Nils Höglander would have been an outsider looking in this time around for that team as would Bo Horvat for Team Canada. The Canadians simply have too much depth up front and especially up the middle. Other than Sidney Crosby potentially moving on, those elements won’t change for Italy.
Canucks fans can also hope that Vasily Podkolzin develops to the point of being a contender for Team Russia.
For now NHL’ers and the Canucks can turn the page. Having a decision early will help maintain focus for the players and planning for NHL clubs.
“I think the focus is on the Canucks and I don’t think anyone wanted to be over there and stuck there for three to five weeks and I think guys would feel bad about leaving their teams here,” Hughes addes. “I think for a guy like “Millsy” (Miller), he’s played for the US, he’s played World Juniors, but his mindset, his number one goal is to win games here and I think it’s the same thing for me. Hopefully there will be other chances to go too.”
Respectively, for some yes, for others, not so much.