By Dan Burns
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – The lengthy list of firsts witnessed in men’s ice hockey at the Pyeongchang Olympics is both impressive and in many cases outright stunning, contributing to one of the most topsy-turvy tournaments in memory.
Whether it was Germany playing in their first gold medal game – and nearly winning – or Norway reaching the quarter-finals for the first time, the common catalyst for all of the firsts over the past two weeks was the absence of NHL players at the Olympics for the first time in 24 years.
The NHL and International Olympic Committee last year failed to reach an agreement on players’ travel and insurance costs, meaning teams from the 12 participating countries were largely cast of journeyman pros from smaller leagues augmented with a handful of recently retired NHL players and a few emerging amateur players.
The one exception was the Olympic Athletes from Russia, who brought together the top players from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, seen as the best league after the NHL, and former NHL all stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The mix of lower-level talent across the tournament allowed for surprising results throughout.
“Not having the NHL is still a disappointment,” International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel said.
Still, with a team out of the blue like Germany appearing in the final, it kept interest in the tournament high despite the best players not being on hand.
In the end, the gold medal was won by the Russians in a thrilling overtime win over Germany, who collected their own list of firsts in the Pyeongchang games.
To get to the final, the Germans beat both Sweden and Canada for the first time and after a heroic losing effort against the Russians, went home with a silver medal – their highest achievement ever in Olympic hockey.
“I would say that in Germany nobody cares that the NHL is here or not,” Fasel said.
Germany’s coach Marco Sturm, who played in the NHL for 15 years, said while it was thrilling to have his team make the final in the absence of the best players in the world, he’d still prefer to have had the NHL in the mix.
“With me, with us we didn’t know what to expect without those guys,” Sturm said. “I really hope in the future though that those guys are back on the Olympic ice.”
(Reporting By Dan Burns; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)