Between the Lines: Olympic Intrigue
How It Will Affect College Hockey Is Still In Flux
The Winter Olympics in South Korea is now just two months away, and the powers that be are still in the process of selecting who will be on the team.
This process is much trickier than years past, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which involve politics.
How this will affect current NCAA players is still a matter in flux. It's been believed perhaps five or six players will be lost in February to Team USA, but other factors could change that.
The NHL decided relatively late in the game not to allow its players to leave for the Olympics this time around. Back in the day, before pros were allowed, the U.S. would put together a team of amateurs from the college ranks a year in advance. But now, with the limited time, USA Hockey decided it didn't want to pull players away from their college teams without warning.
Also, since pros are still allowed to play, there are many American pros in European leagues that are available. Many of those are already on the radar of USA Hockey, and get together for occasional international tournaments. The most recent one of those tournaments was the Deutschland Cup in Germany a couple months ago.
The conventional wisdom has been that the U.S. would take about five or six current NCAA players for the Olympics, a thought backed up by Wisconsin coach Tony Granato after he was named to lead the Olympic team.
But Team USA had a winless showing (0-4) at the Deutschland Cup, suggesting that perhaps they would try to pluck more NCAA players for the Olympic team.
In speaking to some team officials recently, however, that appears not to be the case. There is still some reluctance to grab additional players from the NCAA ranks and upset their teams. But also, they believe Team USA didn't do as badly in the Deutschland Cup as the record might indicate. Further, if they do decide to amend the Deutschland Cup roster, they are looking more towards AHL players on one-way contracts.
Those "five or six" almost certainly will include players like Jordan Greenway of Boston University and Troy Terry of Denver, two stars on the 2017 U.S. World Junior gold medal team. Those guys are now aged out of World Juniors, which is good, because they won't have to miss time at BU twice. Team USA has also tried to avoid "double-dipping" for World Junior and the Olympics, but it may have to dip in for the goaltenders. BU's Jake Oettinger and BC's Joe Woll will be on the World Junior team again; one could be taken as a backup for the Olympics. The likely starter is former Clarkson goalie David Leggio, currently playing in Europe.
A goaltending option, if they want to avoid the double dip, would be to take Notre Dame's Cale Morris, who is having a phenonmenal season. But there is no indication Team USA will do that.
Now we get to the politics.
It wasn't just the poor Deutschland Cup results that threatened to alter Team USA's plans for the amount of NCAA players it would take. There is also the geopolitical intrigue.
For one, the International Olympic Committee recently banned Russia from the 2018 Winter games over revelations of extensive doping of its players at the 2014 games Russia hosted in Sochi. (By the way, if you haven't already, I highly encourage you to check out the documentary that brought a lot of this to light: "Icarus." Even if you always just shrugged your shoulders at performance enhancing drugs, you'll be mind-boggled at the lengths the Russian government went to for Sochi.)
The IOC said that clean Russian athletes can still compete at the Games, but not under the Russian flag. Consequently, Russian president Vladimir Putin threatened to deny players currently playing in the KHL (Russia's top pro hockey league) from going to the games. That wouldn't just affect Russians, but Americans and Canadians playing in the KHL. Those players make decent money, and wouldn't walk away from their contract just for the Olympics.
If those players can't go, Team Canada may be scrambling for players. Upwards of 15 players on Team Canada's roster is currently playing in the KHL. Major Junior teams have been in a panic that key players would be "double-dipped" for World Juniors and the Olympics, so Hockey Canada started looking intently at NCAA players who could go. The top two leading goal scorers in the NCAA right now are Canadian — Clarkson's Sheldon Rempal and Western Michigan's Wade Allison — as is the leading point scorer, Notre Dame's Jake Evans. Then there's Northeastern's Dylan Sikura, among many others.
There's also seven Americans from the Deutschland Cup team that play in the KHL — including former Hobey winner Matt Gilroy, Ryan Stoa (Minnesota), Brian O'Neill (Yale) and Mike Lundin (Maine). Among the Canadians in the KHL are Matt Frattin (North Dakota), Karl Stollery (Merrimack), Chay Genoway (North Dakota) and Ben Scrivens (Cornell).
More recently, Putin said he would allow those players to go, which has eased the situation. But it's Putin — he could change his mind at any minute. And would anyone put it past him to play games with the Olympics, just to put the screws to the IOC?
I am highly-resistant to conspiracy theories and "fake news." But how far-fetched is it, really, to think that a guy who orchestrated his country's national security apparatus behind doping his entire Olympic contingent, and systematically helping covertly influence an American presidential election, would have any qualms about sabotaging the Olympics just to be a troublemaker? The answer is, not far-fetched at all.
Then what about our nutty buddy in North Korea, who sits less than 100 miles from the site of these Winter Olympics. Does anyone know what he will do given all of this year's saber-rattling?
The Trump Administration mentioned it for the first time last week, when United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, said that keeping the U.S. contingent home for security reasons is something that might have to be considered. Other officials quickly back-pedaled from that comment, but it's out there.
And, again, in this day and age, it's hard to discount conpsiracy theories when you have an embarassed Putin and a U.S. president in his hip pocket.
When I spoke to Granato a couple of months ago, and asked him about the possibility, however remote, of there being no Winter Olympics, he reacted like the thought never crossed his mind.
But having spoken to other Team USA people recently, it's finally at least occurred to them as a possibility, however small.
So the bottom line for college hockey is still very much in flux. It will make for some intriguing things to write about in February, for sure.