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With the absence of NHL players in Pyeongchang, a shadow lifts from the underappreciated

The other day as I was standing idly outside our Olympic accommodation, I was approached by a lovely gentleman named Mr. Park.

Though he had very little English, Mr. Park wanted badly to have a conversation.

"Where from?" he asked.

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"Canada," I said.

Then Mr. Park did something that any Canadian who has ever travelled anywhere will recognize.

"Canada," Mr. Park said. He mimed taking hold of a stick and winding up. "Hockey."

Not so much anymore, Mr. Park. Not so much.

Not at these Olympics, at least. But that's beginning to feel like a good thing.

In the past, when the NHL arrives at a Winter Games – usually late – it hits every other competitor there like a tsunami. Almost all of them are washed away.

The hockey players don't intend to do this, but it's unavoidable.

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Back at work, NHL players are famous, but not basketball player famous. In many parts of America, they might not be ping-pong player famous.

At the Olympics, they are Beatles big. The Canadians and Americans bow to them because they are professionals. The Russians, Swedes, Finns, et al treat them that way because they so rarely get to rub up against real American-style sports glitz.

All that deference casts an enormous shadow over their teammates in other disciplines.

All of the other Canadians were at the Games experiencing the culmination of a decades-old dream – one that might also turn into a life-altering disappointment.

The NHLers got all the benefit with none of the risk. A loss would hurt, and then a couple of days later they'd go back to cashing six-figure cheques and chasing their real goal – a pro championship.

The Canadian NHLers were the special case within the special case. For them, an Olympic gold is a way to round out a career, not define one. A silver is a paperweight. A bronze is not worth the trouble it would take to pack.

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Wherever the Canadian NHLers went, foreigners flocked to them to be near "real" sports stars. Their press conferences and skates were overflowing affairs.

On Saturday, we got a taste of what Olympic hockey looks like in the post-NHL era.

Perhaps a dozen people showed up to the official unveiling of Team Canada, all of them Canadians. Unlike the auditoriums used at recent Games for this purpose, the room was the size of a finished basement. A loud fan was blowing overhead and nobody bothered to scream for it to be turned off because, let's be serious, were we recording this for future generations?

Aside from team GM Sean Burke, you would probably have trouble recognizing the others on the podium – the coach, the captain and the assistant captain. At the last Olympics, that trio was Mike Babcock, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

Their replacements had taken the trouble to print out their remarks, like they were nervous or something.

No promises were made. No one talked much about the tournament to come at all. Most remarks were given over to people being thankful for getting the chance to be on this team and the people who made that happen.

When NHLers said that sort of thing, they meant being given something they took as a right. They are the best, after all.

When Chris Kelly and Derek Roy say it, they mean being judged good enough to put on a Canada jersey. They aren't anywhere near the best, and they know it.

Kelly is a particular example of this team of irregulars and fill-ins. He's 37. He was a jobbing pro in the NHL for a lot of years, and though he still plays the game for a living, he no longer does so at the highest level.

Like the man whose role he now occupies, the new Canadian captain is a quiet man, but in a different way. Kelly lacks the jaded monotone of a star like Crosby who does this every day. He seems surprised anyone wants to hear him speak.

After he was named to the Canadian team, Kelly said neighbours he's lived beside in Ottawa for many years told him they were "proud" of him. He was shovelling his driveway at the time.

"People have always said 'congratulations' or 'great job,' but no one's ever said they're proud of you, except your parents," Kelly said. "That was probably one of the coolest things I'll remember from this whole experience."

This is a new one – the captain of the Canadian men's hockey team talking like the fourth guy on a bobsleigh crew. And meaning it.

It had an effect.

The NHL's choice to skip the Olympics was a disastrous one. They voluntarily passed on a marketing opportunity any globally minded sports league would pay anything for. It's proof that despite a lot of big talk about China and points beyond, the NHL remains in its bones a parochial endeavour.

It's not just the league's fault. The players deserve nearly as much blame for choosing not to press their case. Hockey players have a reputation as a bunch of "pucks in deep," go-along-to-get-along rubes. This was where they proved that.

If the biggest stars had revolted en masse, the NHL would be here.

But now that they've pooched it, it's probably for the best.

Not for the NHL, certainly, and not for the players. Not for the IOC or sports fans. And not for the sponsors and broadcasters.

Every stakeholder in the Olympics lost when the NHL foolishly decided to give Pyeongchang a pass.

But the Olympics itself won.

The Olympic movement's great modern sin is not doping, greed or corruption. It is vanity.

They have turned something small and pure into something big and gaudy. They lost faith in the power of simplicity – amateurs from a few core sports out there doing their best.

Every time someone cheats, every time a city decides it will no longer bid for a Games, every time people are caught with their hand in the till, it's a symptom of that disease.

Taking the NHL out of the Olympics is a short-term loss. But in the long term, allowing athletes like Chris Kelly, people who really are just happy to be here, to replace global brands in human form points the Olympics in the direction it ought to be headed – backward.

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