When it became clear a week ago that NHLers would face the same pandemic hassles as everyone else at the Olympics, you could feel their collective desire to go to Beijing begin to fade.
The number that got everyone’s attention: five. As in, the potential for five weeks in Chinese quarantine after a positive test.
“That’s a long time away from my family,” Alex Pietrangelo – one of only three players preselected to Team Canada – told his local paper.
“That’s a long time,” bubble selection John Tavares told The Hockey News. “That’s a really long time.”
We get it. Five weeks is a long time. It’s the same amount of time every other Olympic athlete and staffer is staring down the barrel at. Only NHLers were so publicly affronted by it.
From that point on, hockey’s collective mission wasn’t Beijing or bust. It was figuring out how to flake on the Olympics without looking like they were flaking on the Olympics.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put it on the players: “There are a number of open issues, and I know the Players’ Association has concerns about them.”
NHLPA boss Donald Fehr put it back on Bettman: “There certainly hasn’t been a lot of players who have gone public.”
And around and around we would have gone had Omicron not given everyone the excuse they were looking for.
On Wednesday, the unkept secret was formally announced. The NHL is skipping Beijing.
“Certainly, the players and hockey fans are quite disappointed,” Fehr said in a statement. “But playing a full 82-game season … is very important.”
On a business level, this makes sense. The only way to complete all their postponed games is by using the Olympic gap as a scheduling breakwater. Cancelling on Beijing makes it more likely the bills will be paid.
But I was under the impression that, in these parts at least, the call to wear the national jersey was bigger than economics.
That’s the lesson that Canadians have been reared on for more than 50 years. That along with international peacekeepers and waltzing logrollers, hockey players are the ones who bind this country and its disparate people together.
In that national mythology, Team Canada members are our knights-errant. Whatever trophy happens to be the ultimate expression of hockey excellence at that moment is our grail. Nothing can separate the former from the latter.
Except, I guess, a scheduling screwup that may have serious implications for the salary cap.
When you do the Summit Series stations of the cross – Bobby Clarke’s holy slash, the relic of Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle bone, Paul Henderson’s sainted leap – I don’t recall the part where everyone rolled around naked in their bonus money.
We don’t sit around the communal fire talking about the tough market conditions the NHL faced in 1972. Nobody loves to hear the one about how the Red Army negotiated a better cut of the gate at the Forum.
Back then, for a fortunate few, playing hockey was a national calling. Now it has apparently become a national chore.
Because what has really caused everyone in the NHL to give up on Beijing? Money, sure. But most of all, inconvenience. Going to China in the middle of a cocked-up COVID season sounds like a real hassle. Plus, it’s not going to be any fun. Five weeks! Can you imagine?
I suppose all the lugers and speed skaters can, because they’ll still have to reckon with that.
None of them get to come home to McMansions where they use luxury cars as lawn furniture. But you don’t hear them complaining. The biathletes and ski jumpers don’t make money off this one way or the other. Their only goal is glory.
They’re the ones carrying on the grand tradition of Canadian athletics. Bizarrely, they have more in common with Phil Esposito et al than anyone currently playing in the NHL.
Most disappointingly, this is a failure of ambition.
If making mythology is the point – what else is there if you play hockey for Canada – can you imagine a better place than the Olympics no one wants? This is the first great Cold War Games since ‘84. Who doesn’t want to win one of those? The sort of people who really need that extra million to top up their yacht fund, apparently.
You can’t blame Bettman & Co. for their part in this surrender. The people who run the league and own the teams are not hockey purists. They are hockey capitalists. But they don’t claim to be anything else. They didn’t want the Olympics in the first place.
But the players embraced it as a patrimony handed down from Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux. They made returning to the Olympics a centrepiece of their collective bargaining. They talked a blue streak about representing their countries on the biggest stage.
Listening to them, you got the distinct impression that they don’t just do this for the money. That the national colours meant something special. That no great career could be complete unless one had worn them at the highest level.
Given the chance to prove exactly how much it means, while under difficult conditions, Team Canada put up its collective hand and said, ‘Yeeeeeah no, how about we catch you in four years?’
What a bunch of heroes. Is there any free space on Parliament Hill? Maybe we can build them a statue and dedicate it to pragmatism.
You have to resist the urge to cut too deep. The players have taken a sensible path. Sober professionals making circumspect decisions in a volatile market.
Everyone needs to make a living. Like the pros love to say, it’s a business.
But from now on, let’s cool it with the ‘Our Game’ talk during the first intermission and on every ad during the world juniors.
Because if it really was our game, our best wouldn’t be taking a pass on our Olympic team.