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Thrilling final may have redeemed dull Olympic tournament

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — This was an Olympic men’s hockey tournament played without NHL stars, to mostly half-empty arenas and with tepid interest in North America and in a host country still getting to know the sport.

Until the final, perhaps.

When the Russians beat Germany 4-3 in an overtime thriller Sunday to win the gold medal, they did so in an almost-full Gangneung Hockey Centre amid an atmosphere that built with the tension of the back-and-forth game.

Such an entertaining final may have at least redeemed a men’s tournament that was overshadowed for some by the political overtones of the Korean women’s unified team and by the excitement of the United States beating rival Canada for the women’s gold medal.

”The hearts of all the players on the bench stopped,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said. ”We were waiting for this. … It was a very emotional game and now there is a void.”

There was a void in the Pyeongchang Games without the NHL, devaluing and sucking some interest out of men’s hockey tournament. Now it’s a matter of how the mostly listless tournament and the exhilarating gold-medal game shifts the leverage between the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation for Beijing in 2022.

For the first time since 1994, the NHL chose not to stop its season to allow players to go the Olympics. IIHF president Rene Fasel said Saturday the NHL should start thinking about 2022 now.

”I really hope in 2019, 2020, we can have some discussion and they can make a decision,” Fasel said. ”Going to Beijing in 2022 will be another opportunity to promote the game in Asia. We will then see about the possible participation of the NHL or not.”

Even as Fasel used Germany’s run to the final to say nobody in that country cares that the NHL wasn’t there, coach Marco Sturm was lamenting their absence.

”All the NHL guys should be in the Olympics,” Sturm said. ”That’s just what the event is for, and hopefully in the future they will be back on Olympic ice.”

It could only help the buzz around Olympic hockey, which fell short of the anticipation for and the action of the U.S.-Canada women’s final. Even Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and the Russians being in the final didn’t do much to boost ticket sales as the IIHF announced a paid attendance of 5,075.

The fans and many athletes who went to watch Russia-Germany saw Slava Voynov score a crucial goal with 0.5 seconds left in the first period. Voynov is banned from the NHL as a result of his 2015 domestic abuse conviction but was allowed by the IOC and IIHF to play at the Olympics.

It remains to be seen if Voynov, who will turn 32 just before the 2022 Winter Games, would be allowed to play if the NHL is involved and has any say over rosters. That’s far from a sure thing, with commissioner Gary Bettman saying as recently as Saturday he doesn’t know if the NHL wants to go to China, calling it disruptive to a season.

The NHL skipped Pyeongchang in part because the IOC refused to pay for insurance, travel and other expenses as it did for previous Olympics. An average attendance of less than 5,000 and sharing attention with NHL playoff races and the trade deadline in North America might be enough incentive for the IOC to play ball.

Bettman and the NHL certainly do because of interest in the Chinese market. The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks already played exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing prior to this season, and the league is planning more in 2018 and beyond.

But contrary to Fasel’s wishful thinking about a quick decision, the NHL playing at the Games is a question that will likely linger until the next round of collective bargaining talks that could happen as soon as 2020 if either side opts out in September 2019.

AP Sports Writers James Ellingworth and Teresa M. Walker contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.