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Sweden players celebrate after a goal against Canada goalkeeper Matt Tomkins during a men's quarterfinal round hockey game at the 2022 Winter Olympics, on Feb. 16.Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

Remember when it was a blow to our national self-worth whenever Canada’s men’s hockey team lost at the Olympics?

Yeah, me neither.

Canada lost 2-0 to Sweden in the quarters here on Wednesday night. No medal for the men. It’s a real heartbreaker for those guys because some of them have been dreaming about this for three weeks. That’s how long ago they picked the team.

Well, at least it was Sweden. It cares.

Not about the no-name collection of spent veterans, college kids and KHL mercenaries who make up the Swedish roster. The Swedes care about the national hockey team theoretically.

Last time around, in 2018, Canada lost to Germany, which doesn’t even have hockey rinks. It has beer gardens they hose over when it gets too cold to serve bratwurst outdoors.

None of the rosters here in Beijing feature anyone who might genuinely excite the average hockey fan.

The biggest brand name in the tournament was probably Canada’s Eric Staal. At 37, no NHL team wanted him. But at least he could claim relevance at the highest level within the past fiscal year.

Staal’s transparent Olympic goal was not sacrificing himself to bring glory to his home country. That was his goal 12 years ago, when he was wearing the same jersey in Vancouver.

This time around he treated the Highest Honour Our Nation Affords Men in Jockstraps as a job interview.

“I’d like to play well in this event and see what happens,” Staal said before the games started. “I don’t feel finished yet.”

Even the guy wearing the ‘C’ was looking over Team Canada’s shoulder to see if there was someone more interesting to talk to at the party.

‘Oh whoa, is that the Minnesota Wild over there? I didn’t know they’d be here. Say, Canada, can you hold my drink? I just have to talk to Minnesota. Yeah, yeah, the game’s in a couple of minutes. I know. I’ll be right back.’

The Canadian players knew they didn’t have to worry about national blowback. They’d seen how people shrugged it off when the NHL took a pass on coming to the Olympics.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

The best players on Canada had the same idea. They were either going to play their way back into some NHL team’s good graces (Josh Ho-Sang) or convince the higher-ups they were ready for some real responsibility (Mason McTavish, Owen Power).

They wanted to win. That’s not at issue. They were certainly trying to win.

But there was also a strong undertone of “Hey, we’re not miracle workers.” What do you expect when you hire a bunch of last-minute fill-ins? The coach put himself in hospital in a tobogganing mishap a week before the thing started. You ever heard of curses?

The excuses came pre-primed. The players knew they didn’t have to worry about national blowback. They’d seen how people shrugged it off when the NHL took a pass on coming here. They could sense that no one was paying real attention. Not the way they used to.

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However much we’d like to think they don’t, things like that make a difference.

What the Olympic tournament is meant to prove is, which is the greatest hockey country on Earth at a given moment.

What it has just proved is that if the NHL isn’t here, Olympic hockey doesn’t matter.

It mattered before the NHL got here, when people didn’t know any better. That was back when young players had the Olympics in their mind’s eye as a goal for years before an Olympics came around, when it was a bunch of American steelworkers against the Red Army. That Olympic hockey was not necessarily great, but it stirred the blood.

The problem now: you can’t go backward in time.

Letting the NHL in changed the perception of what Olympic hockey should look and feel like. It should be the best against best, and for real stakes, with Russian NHLers doing most of the work to hype the games.

Olympic men’s hockey for Canada is humiliation in Nagano, redemption in Salt Lake City, a proper humbling in Turin and our greatest 21st-century national celebration in Vancouver. It’s gotta be big – big names, big rivalries, big emotions, big risks.

With respect to the players who, unlike the NHLers, cared enough to be here, Olympic hockey has become small.

There is no arguing that all of this feels lesser now. To everyone. To the players, the organizers, hockey fans from hockey countries and, most especially, to people who don’t care that much about hockey but watch it at a Games.

The reason you may find yourself watching biathlon or short-track speed skating at the Olympics is not because you’ve developed a sudden interest in those sports. They are on all the time. If you’re willing to put in the research, there is a pirate biathlon channel for you somewhere. You watch because you know you are seeing the very best attempting to touch their ultimate goal. You know that while you watch, several professional lives are going to be defined, for good or ill.

What was at stake in Canada vs. Sweden, in a game that went off at 5:15 a.m. PT on a Wednesday morning?

Did anyone think this was a referendum on the state of hockey in Canada or Sweden? Does anyone believe that if any of these players were offered a choice – one extra season on a bad NHL team or a gold medal – that they’d take the medal?

They’ll play hockey in the Olympics forever because it eats up a good chunk of broadcast time and someone will always watch it. But that’s what hockey has become – an Olympic schedule filler. The steel-cut oats of your Olympic breakfast. The women’s game is too unbalanced and, without the NHL, the men’s game is too meh.

It’s no tragedy that people aren’t rending their garments because one good (not great) hockey team lost to another good (not great) hockey team. It’s good to have things in perspective.

But try to think back to how you felt when Sidney Crosby scored that goal in 2010. Where you were and who you were with and how that momentary feeling of intense community with 35 million others is burned on your brain.

And then think of how sad it would be if no Canadian got a chance to feel that way again.

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