PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Spasibo, Comrade Bettman.
Russian president Vladimir Putin should send a bottle of his finest vodka to the NHL commissioner, as he’s a frontrunner for MVP of this Olympic tournament.
The fallout from Bettman’s decision to keep NHL players home from South Korea is pretty simple: the Russian team is head-and-shoulders above all other opponents here. That was obvious again on Wednesday as 10 players took turns in a quarterfinals shootout between Team USA and the Czech Republic, and only one was able to score. The American forwards did everything they could to win, through regulation and overtime and in the final ill-fated showdown, but when your breakout players are student-athletes ages 20 and 21, and you go against pros in their mid-to-late 20s and 30s, it’s not likely to go smoothly.
Look at it this way: The two best “Olympic Athletes from Russia” players, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, have each played in five Olympics and have 1,734 NHL points between them. The two best U.S. players in these Olympics, Ryan Donato and Troy Terry, have zero. Donato, a Harvard junior, told reporters after Wednesday’s loss that he had some homework to do on his flight back to the States.
“They’re an elite team,” U.S. head coach Tony Granato said of the Russians. “They might be as good as 20 of the 30 teams playing in the NHL right now. That’s how good they are.”
That may not be an overstatement. Kovalchuk is only 34. Slava Voynov left the NHL after being arrested for domestic violence charges in 2014. He’s 28. Vadim Shipachyov, 30, was the second player ever signed by the Golden Knights. He scored a goal in three NHL games and then bolted for the KHL. These guys aren’t scabs.
One simulation of this tournament with NHL players gave the Americans a 26 percent chance of winning gold, and O.A.R. 19 percent. You’d have to be quite the gambler to have given the Americans as constituted a one-in-four shot at the top of the podium.
Meanwhile, the step down for the Russians without NHL talent is relatively minimal, as the KHL is the second-strongest league in the world, and many of the players on this O.A.R. team have plenty of experience together. The KHL was only too happy to suspend its league to help its Olympics prep for this month. Meanwhile, Granato and the late GM Jim Johannson had to mix and match from college kids, the AHL, and foreign leagues, including the KHL.
To say it’s like a repeat of the 1980 Miracle on Ice actually doesn’t account for the fact that the Americans from that team had months to practice together. These guys were still learning about each other’s personalities and tendencies as the tournament went on.
So why did Bettman do this? In his defense, the IOC pulled the plug on funding for the NHL players, which dropped an enormous bill in the lap of a league that was already ceasing play (and gate revenue) for a month for prior Olympics-interrupted seasons. South Korea is not a huge hockey market and likely never will be, so it’s not like the “grow the game” argument worked well. And PyeongChang’s daytime is America’s nighttime, for the most part, so the kids that fall in love with the NHL by watching Olympic hockey probably slept through the greater part of this tournament. It all adds up, and it’s easy to blame the IOC instead, but the end result is a poor product that left the Russians with a huge windfall.
Russia is technically banned from these Games because of doping, and a Russian curler has been banned during these Games, but here’s betting any amount of rubles that Putin does not care about any of that as long as his hockey team wins the gold. He’s got an election coming up, and he’s already got Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin starting a social media movement in the States for “Putin Team.” The timing is ideal. To have one of the final images of these Olympics feature the Russians on the top of a podium would be Putin’s long-awaited response to American swimmer Lilly King’s famous finger-wag toward Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova in Rio. What’s Russian for “scoreboard”?
Labor strife could throw the entire league into chaos before the next Games, but here’s betting the NHL is back for Beijing. It’s an enormous market and two NHL teams have already traveled to China this season for a two-game series (presented by O.R.G. Packaging!). So the good news is there’s a good chance we’ll see Ryan Donato and Troy Terry in the Olympics again.
For now, it’s been a grand old time for Russian fans. They flooded the arena to see their team’s 4-0 drubbing of the United States in the preliminary round, with one fan waving an old Soviet Union flag and another with a Russia Federation flag saying “Olympic Fans of Russia.” Even on Wednesday afternoon, a Russian woman sat alone in a lower section behind the goal, watching the U.S. vs. the Czechs from the best seat in the house. She wouldn’t give her name, but asked what she thought of the Russia ban, she said all nations dope and for some reason there was blame for her country. “I think it’s unfair,” she said.
She said it with a big grin. Clearly she wasn’t too hurt by the decision. It turned out nicely for her anyway; she gets to be here for what might be an eternally cherished moment in her country’s sports history.
Back in the U.S., Ovechkin was asked if he’s watching any of the Olympics. He said no, but maybe a little of the hockey. “Thanks, Bettman,” he quipped.
He was being sarcastic and ever so slightly bitter, but the gratitude will be genuine among some of his countrymen.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Watch: First-person video shows you how fast downhill skiing is
• Busbee: Behind the scenes in the Olympic mixed zone
• Wetzel: Three falls beg question of what’s happened to USA figure skating
• NBC cuts into Olympic broadcast to show crazy car chase in L.A.
• Busbee: Military bonds four-man American bobsled team