When the 2018 Olympic Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, start on Friday, there will be no National Hockey League players participating.
And the Dallas Stars' John Klingberg, who leads all league defensemen with 50 points, doesn’t like it.
The NHL decided last April against its players participating, ending a streak of five consecutive Winter Olympic Games with NHL players, dating back to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The main reason for skipping the Games is the 17-day break in the schedule required to participate.
Klingberg has fond memories of watching Sweden in the Winter Games, especially when they won the gold medal in Turin, Italy, in 2006, and he is itching to realize his own Olympic dream.
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“It’s really sad, but I don’t know what to say," Klingberg said. "It is what it is right now.”
Klingberg might get his chance to play in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China. Last fall, the NHL held preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing, and the league is committed to additional games there in the future as it looks to grow the sport in Asia.
"I think for sure the NHL would be stupid if they don’t let us go to China,” Klingberg said. "They’re trying to build the brand in China, so that would be stupid if they don’t allow us in the Olympics in four years. But it’s four years from now and a lot of stuff can happen."
The Stars have five players with Olympic experience.
In 2014, Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock was an assistant for Canada and coached Jamie Benn, who was the captain. Also skating in Sochi, Russia, were Stars newcomers center Martin Hanzal (Czech Republic) and forward Alexander Radulov, who skated in his second consecutive Olympics for Russia. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen (Finland) and defenseman Dan Hamhuis (Canada) were also at the 2014 Games.
Hitchcock won gold medals in three of his four Olympics.
"I understand where the players are coming from. It’s a very interesting dynamic where for one time in your life, you get to feel like a normal athlete and you hang with everybody,” Hitchcock said. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of athletes don’t get paid big money to be Olympians. They just go out and they play for the joy, and they get paid performance clauses and everything that goes with it, and we got to feel like those guys.”
Benn’s first Olympics resulted in a gold medal. The two-time NHL All-Star said getting to know his fellow Olympians was his favorite part of the experience.
"I think we all want to be there this year,” Benn said. “It’s unfortunate, but hopefully we’ll have NHL players in the next one.”
Lehtonen said getting to know his countrymen and women who were also representing their country was the highlight of his Olympic experience.
He also said he understood why the owners decided against allowing their players to skate in South Korea.
“I’m sure it’s going to come back again, but it’s hard for the owners because the [Olympic committees] are using [NFL owners'] assets and they don’t get anything from it,” Lehtonen said. “I understand both sides. If I was the owner, I would probably want it the same way.”
Lehtonen joked that by the time the 2022 Games roll around, he’ll be there as a goalie coach, possibly for Finland, at age 38.
Hitchcock summed up the Olympics as an experience that no participant will likely ever forget.
“We got to participate in a lot of things and go to a lot of events that we would have never been to before. The one thing that really attaches with the players is it stays with you forever,” Hitchcock said. “I can remember events and situations that are like yesterday. [I’m] pretty lucky. I’ve built friendships with curlers and with other event people, speed skating people, that are going to last a lifetime.”