Missing the Olympics just another disappointment for Blackhawks stars
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Picture Patrick Kane skating alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Auston Matthews, with Jack Eichel centering the second line between Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler.
A blue line led by Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Shayne Gostisbehere.
Young stars such as Brock Boeser and Charlie McAvoy getting their first taste of the biggest stage in hockey: the Olympics.
‘‘It’d be fun to get a team together like that,’’ Kane said.
Instead of maybe the best and most exciting U.S. team ever, though, Team USA is led by 39-year-old Brian Gionta, along with a ragtag group of former NHL players, minor-leaguers and college kids who lost to Slovenia in an Olympic opener. Instead of Connor McDavid on Team Canada, there’s Rene Bourque. Instead of Erik Karlsson on Sweden’s blue line, there’s Erik Gustafsson (no, not that one).
Of all the reasons the 2017-18 season has been a colossal disappointment for the Blackhawks, the NHL’s decision to pull out of the Pyeongchang Olympics might seem like a relatively minor one. But February would have been a lot more fun for the Hawks if some of them were in South Korea — and the rest were on a beach somewhere. Sure beats losing seven consecutive games and falling out of playoff contention.
‘‘If you asked us around this room, we’d all say we want to be [at the Olympics] playing,’’ Kane said during the All-Star weekend.
Kane was on the 2010 Olympic team that lost to Canada in an epic gold-medal game in Vancouver. He was on the 2014 team that failed to medal in Sochi. And he was on the 2016 World Cup team that flamed out spectacularly, losing all three of its games.
This was going to be Team USA’s chance at redemption — a young, fast, skilled team with veterans such as Kane, Joe Pavelski, Kessel and Jonathan Quick to lead the way.
Kane’s next chance will come in 2022, when the NHL is expected to go to Beijing. By then, he will be 33.
But the Americans are hardly the only ones left wondering, ‘‘What if?’’ This was going to be Canada’s chance to cement itself as an international hockey legend, with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Co. seeking a third gold medal in a row under coach Mike Babcock.
Toews was furious about the decision when it was made last year, upset that the league was turning the Olympics into a bargaining chip with the players’ union. But mired in a trying season of his own, Toews is more wistful than angry now.
‘‘Nothing is given there; I can’t even stand here and talk like I’d [definitely] be on Team Canada if we were going,’’ Toews said. ‘‘There are so many great players. So any chance you get to represent your country is a great honor. Who knows what would have happened? But I think the pressure definitely would have been on Canada had we gone to the tournament there.’’
Since the NHL first went to the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, the debate has been whether it’s worth it for the league to shut down for two weeks — if it truly grows the game. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the owners find it ‘‘disruptive,’’ but Crosby said it would be ‘‘weird’’ not to be there.
The players want to be there, but they’ll have to wait four long years to get another chance.
‘‘It’s a missed opportunity,’’ said Wheeler, the dynamic Jets winger. ‘‘As cool as it is for players to be part of the Olympic experience, it’s a missed opportunity to expand our game. A lot of casual viewers that aren’t hockey fans, they watch USA-Canada and they cheer, and that’s an opportunity for us to expand the game and make more fans. That’s the bummer about it.’’
NOTE: The Hawks put goalie Jeff Glass on waivers and are expected to recall J-F Berube from Rockford of the American Hockey League.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.