Couple this with the NHL’s reluctance to continue pausing its schedule every few years, and you could easily see that this 20-year experiment in international competition was about to expire. The NHL Players’ Association vocally opposed the league’s decision, and diehard hockey fans, especially those with an acute sensitivity to perceptions around their sport’s popularity, will be crushed that they won’t get to see Canadian Sidney Crosby suit up for a chance at his third-straight gold medal, or Auston Matthews, the California-born phenom who regularly snipes in goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs, don Team USA’s blue jerseys (with cheese grater sleeves). These games will be especially bittersweet for Russia’s Alex Ovechkin, the best pure goal scorer of his generation, who will neither get a chance to redeem a poor showing four years back in Sochi on his home soil nor lead his country to its first goal medal since the Unified Team won in 1992.
But the NHL’s decision also likely crushed the Americans’ chances for a trip to the medal stand. Hockey-mad countries like Russia and Canada, and Scandinavian powers like Sweden and Finland, aren’t hurting for talent—the sport is all but embedded in their citizens’ DNA. Not so for the United States, whose ragtag roster is replete with past-their-prime NHL veterans, flameouts who never panned out, and young-ish never-beens yet to make their mark. Team captain Brian Gionta was a star at Boston College, where he once scored five goals in one period, before playing 15 seasons in the NHL. Defenseman Matt Gilroy led Boston University to the 2009 National Championship and won the Hobey Baker Award—like a Heisman, but for collegiate hockey. There’s talent and experience on the roster, just not as much as in years’ past. That the top goalie has never made an NHL roster and had to be summoned from his squad in Russia said much about the team’s depth and overall chances for gold. Consider this: Some countries assemble their nationals squads and spend months coordinating practices and preaching potential on-ice tactics. By the time the Americans face off against Slovenia, they will have practiced together as teammates for a grand total of about six hours. Not great.
As America slips, the Russians—or rather, the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” as they are technically called due to IOC punishments in response to allegations of widespread doping—rise. They are the odds-on favorites to win gold; anything less would be another in a string of deflating disappointments. But short of hacking into their opponents’ GPS devices to send them away from the Gangneung Hockey Center come game time, the Russians should have little problem methodically inching their way to gold.
If these parallels to the current state of geopolitical affairs hold, then we know how this will play out. The Russians will use any means at their disposal to best all comers, exploiting their edge in talent and determination over their lesser competition. The Americans will approach each contest with confidence in their historical pedigree, but execute as if they’re two steps behind and then wonder where it all went wrong. The truest test may come this Saturday when the United States and Russia face off on the ice. There’s every chance Team USA will need at least a tie to advance to the next round, so any remaining vestige of American hockey exceptionalism will need to be on full display if its medal hopes are to survive.