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NHL’s return to Olympics finally gives fans chance to see best on best

NHL's return to Olympics finally gives fans chance to see best on best

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EDMONTON — “Crosby to McDavid … He scooooores!”

If we can boil Friday’s announcement to one fan-friendly element, it is that Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid will pull on Team Canada sweaters together this February at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

Finally.

“For me, I’ve never been before and I’m fully planning on going (in February) — if I’m lucky enough to make the team,” McDavid said earlier this summer. “To represent my country at the Olympics would be so special.”

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The NHL and the IIHF announced Friday that NHL players will return to the Olympics this Feb. 4-20, giving fans a true best-on-best hockey tournament for the first time since Sochi in 2014.

Despite having already released a schedule with a baked-in 20-day Olympic break, the NHL was still in negotiations with the IOC — and the NHL Players’ Association — to put the finishing touches on the league’s reentry into the Olympic family. The NHL ended its string of five straight Winter Games when it stayed home from PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018.

Issues like insurance for player contracts, flights to and lodgings in China, marketing rights and a host of other concerns had to be addressed on behalf of the NHL and its 32 owners, a group that has never been keen on stocking the Olympic tournament with NHL players while shuttering its own operation during a winter month when both the NFLe and MLB are dark.

The players, however, support Olympic participation almost unanimously. The stars all want to enjoy the lifetime opportunity that is playing in an Olympic Games, while the rest of the union happily books 10-day, mid-season vacations in warm-weather locales with their families.

“When we signed our last CBA the players were really pushing for a commitment from the league to allow us to go to the Olympics,” McDavid said on June 30. “It’s my understanding that we got that commitment, and the league was going to do everything in its power (to facilitate that).

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“As players, we’re expecting to go. As players, we’re expecting the league to make that happen.”

And so the league has indeed made it happen, though fans will lose some sleep if they want to watch the games live.

Beijing is exactly 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, so an 8 p.m. start in China means an 8 a.m. puck drop in Toronto, and 5 a.m. in Vancouver. The problem is, the inevitable 4 p.m. game in Beijing will play in the dead of night in North America, one of the many elements that make NHL owners hesitant about handing over their product to the IOC.

The hockey, however, promises to be somewhere north of absolutely fantastic.

The Canadian team will be stacked with aging stars and McDavid’s new generation of talent, as fans will get their first glimpse of McDavid in a Team Canada jersey in a best-on-best scenario since he was a junior.

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The United States will pair Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane in the same fashion as Crosby and McDavid, fronting an American team that will be a true gold-medal contender from the crease out.

Finland’s international performances at every level have become the stuff of legend, as a tiny nation of some five million punches above its weight at level. The Swedes are skilled and powerful. Russia has an abundance of talent and perhaps the sport’s top goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

This is the real deal, not some contrived World Cup with a team of 23-and-unders and a conglomeration of Euros playing under a fabricated banner.

NHL players first attended the Olympics back in 1998, when Canada’s tournament was famously derailed with Wayne Gretzky on the bench in a shootout loss to the Czechs.

From there, Canada’s efforts stabilized, winning gold in 2002 at Salt Lake City, and following Sweden’s win at Torino in ’06, there was more gold for Canada with Sidney Crosby scoring the Golden Goal at Vancouver in 2010. Canadian NHLers won the tournament again at Sochi in 2014, the last time North American professionals participated in the Olympic Winter Games.

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