Sochi: The Last Olympics for NHL Players?

Canada swept hockey again, but the looming possibility that the league could reinstate its ban on Olympic participation could change the landscape for 2018.

After four years of waiting, two weeks of thrilling action, The T.J. Oshie Show, and a women's championship game for the ages, the song remained the same: “O, Canada,” with two hockey gold medals in Sochi.

Just like in 2010, a U.S. hockey team suffered a gut-wrenching loss in the Olympic championship game. This time, though, it was the women's team that suffered. Up 2-0 with less than four minutes to play in the third period, the U.S. gave away the lead and lost 3-2 in overtime. The Canadians scored the tying goal with less than a minute to play, seconds after the Americans came a literal hair's breadth from sealing the gold:

via Deadspin

"It's really hard to swallow," American forward Jocelyn Lamoureux said after the game last Thursday. "It sucks."

The old buzzwords of last-minute defeats—choke, collapse, meltdown—were thrown around by many after the game. But the U.S. loss was more about bad luck than mistakes or nerves. The first Canadian goal was a wild shot by Brianne Jenner that deflected off U.S. defender Kacey Bellamy and into the net, a fluke bounce that no one could have prevented. Then, Kelli Stack's shot on the empty net hit directly off the Canada goalpost and stayed there—a quarter inch to the right and it would have bounced off the post and in and put the game away for the Americans.

The only U.S. mistake came seconds later, when goalie Jessie Vetter failed to cover or clear the puck from in front of her net, leading to Canada's tying goal. And Lamoureux took a questionable penalty in overtime that led to a power play for Canada and the winning goal. That is not a choke. It is a horrifying defeat, sure, but it's a product of Canada's prowess, a small mistake in goal, and the ever-fickle hockey gods. The Americans were the better team and are on their way to being favorites in 2018, though I'm sure that feels a long way away for the U.S. women right now.

None of that makes the loss easier to take for U.S. hockey fans, especially when coupled with the men's team's failure to medal. The men’s tournament had particular significance at these Winter Games because of the growing desire among NHL owners to ban their players from the Olympics once again.

The owners have cited the unwieldy two-week league-wide hiatus, revenue concerns, and the potential for serious injuries at the Olympics as reasons to keep their players from competing in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. When New York Islanders captain John Tavares, a fixture for the Canadian team, suffered an NHL season-ending torn MCL in the quarterfinals against Latvia, it undoubtedly further encouraged many owners to push for a ban.

Canada did not need Tavares or injured center Steven Stamkos to re-affirm its place at the top of North American hockey. After cruising into the semifinals, the U.S. ran into Canada's buzzsaw and were cut down, 1-0. The Americans came into the tilt averaging nearly five goals per game in the Olympics, but against Canada they were truly inept on offense, producing only a handful of good scoring chances on Canadian netminder Carey Price. If not for the heroics of U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick, it probably would have been 4-0 or 5-0 in favor of Canada.

The loss deflated the U.S. team, which barely showed up for the bronze medal game against Finland. Teemu Selanne got to finish his peerless Olympic career in style, scoring two goals in a humiliating 5-0 rout. U.S. star Patrick Kane in particular needed a hug after missing two penalty shots in the second period and taking two mindless penalties out of frustration later in the game. As much as the dramatic U.S. victory over Russia boosted the team's prestige, the back-to-back shutout losses showed the limitations of the American squad when it's up against the best in the world.

Canada's 3-0 victory over Sweden in Sunday's gold medal game, complete with a Sidney Crosby breakaway goal on Henrik Lundqvist, showed coach Mike Babcock's squad at its best. Canada controlled the contest throughout and finished the Olympic tournament without trailing for a single second, a dominating performance by a hockey program that is reaching dynasty status. Beginning at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Canada hockey has won seven of eight gold medals and is a staggering 39-5-1 (wins-losses-ties) in Olympic play. The Canadian women are 20-0 over that stretch, including four wins over the Americans.

Perhaps Canada itself, from the players to the coaches to the millions of screaming fans, just wants it more. The world saw how much hockey can mean to a country after the Miracle On Ice in 1980, and again this year in Sochi when the Russian men failed to reach the medal round. A crushing 3-1 loss to Finland in the quarterfinals led to a hilariously testy exchange between coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and the Russian press:

Q: What future, if any, do you see for your own work and for your coaching staff? Because, you know, your predecessor was eaten alive after the Olympics--
Bilyaletdinov: Well then, eat me alive right now--
Q: No, I mean--
Bilyaletdinov: Eat me, and I won't be here anymore.
Q: But we have the world championship coming up [in May]!
Bilyaletdinov: Well then, there will be a different coach because I won't exist any more, since you will have eaten me.

Cannibalism aside, even the Russians don't crave hockey success as much as the Canadians. The country's Olympic successes have either been tainted (Ben Johnson), fleeting (Donovan Bailey), overshadowed (Brian Orser), or under-reported (Clara Hughes). But not in hockey. With the inclusion of NHL players in the Olympics, Canada has developed a consistently great men's hockey team that rivals the USSR's infamous Red Army teams of the 1970s. And along with the U.S., the Canadians are the only game in women's hockey.

I watched the men's gold-medal game Sunday from Van Diemens in New York, which opened its doors for the 7 a.m. Eastern start time. By 6:50, it was so packed with Canadian fans that you couldn't get in the place. As much as America loves hockey, it's hard to imagine an American bar in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal filled to capacity to watch a U.S. gold-medal appearance at 7 a.m. And when the game was over and “O, Canada!” had been sung for a second time on the hockey ice of Sochi, fans spilled into the street to exchange full-throated cheers with fans at other bars on the same street. I can only imagine what the scene was like in Toronto, or even better in Vancouver for the 4 a.m. Pacific start time.

The Canadian fans knew that Crosby and their other NHL stars may never be allowed to play for gold again. Though a majority of NHL players, including U.S. captain and Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, continue to support playing in the Olympics, the owners may decide that money trumps country. A decision will likely come in the next six months, and if the owners do pull out, every player on the 2014 Olympic rosters for the U.S. and Canada (and most for Sweden and Finland) could be ineligible for 2018 Olympics.

For now, perhaps it’s just best to reminisce on the red, white, and blue silver lining from a disappointing hockey showing for the U.S. But while the Olympics are over, the drama is only beginning.