We Can't Figure Out Whether Olympic Men's Hockey Is Awful Or Amazing

The play has been disappointing without NHLers, but it has given underdog countries an opportunity to topple the heavyweights.

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Feb 23 2018, 7:04pm

Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

We're all well aware of the narratives by now.

No NHL players at the Olympics meant that, unlike every other sport in PyeongChang, the men's hockey event would not even be close to a best-on-best competition. The calibre of play would be lower, much lower, than that of every tournament since 1998 when NHLers first hopped on the ice in Nagano.

Some cool and inspirational stories would emerge, sure, but would those stories get covered? Would the time difference be too much of an obstacle to truly showcase these players who have soared under the mainstream hockey radar the past four years? Anyone actually watching the games, in person or on TV? Anyone besides family and friends care?

No? Yes? A little? Maybe? If there's one thing that was undoubtedly confirmed it's that this tournament has been very strange. It's been hard to figure out exactly what we should make of the upsets, the letdowns, and all the weirdness in between.

The Good

Team Germany is in the gold medal game. Wait, what? After doubling down on the upset-train, the Germans knocked out two of the tournament's favourites, beating Sweden 4-3 in the quarterfinal, and then toppling Canada 4-3 in the semis on Friday to earn its first ever berth in an Olympic gold medal game. The victory over Canada ensured the Germans will win an Olympic medal for the first time since the 1976 Games in Innsbruck, Austria, when the country was divided and West Germany captured a bronze.

The scrappy, well-coached bunch from Germany will earn at least a silver medal, which is the best result ever for a country where hockey is big, but sits about 10,000 light years behind soccer as the nation's most relevant and popular sport. This is big. Very big, especially for hockey development in one of the largest countries in Europe.

We also got to to see god damn Slovenia take out the US on the opening day of the tournament, which was just crazy. It happened, though, and it was a sight to behold. The victory was probably the biggest in the country's history on the international stage, something that wouldn't have even been in the realm of possibility had NHL players been competing in PyeongChang.

The Bad

The storylines were omni-present (with Germany's final chapter yet to be written), but the actual watchability and entertainment value of these games, not so much.

Let's be blunt here: the quality of play was pretty atrocious on a whole, at least compared to what we're used to. Many factors contributed to this, obviously, but the glaring omission of the world's top players with the NHL absent was impossible to ignore. No disrespect whatsoever to any of the guys who put their lives on hold to bust their asses for their countries. They are some of the best players in the world, but not THE best, and that drop off in talent was more than evident to even the most casual of fans.

These Games also remind us how absolutely awful the game is to watch on the larger ice surface, especially when the talent isn't quite there to utilize the extra space properly. The best players in the world (see: 2018 women's gold medal game, 2014 Games in Sochi) are able to use the wider ice and increased space behind the nets to produce chances and excitement, while, for whatever reason, this year's event saw pretty much every program use the larger ice surface to try and nullify offence rather than create it.

These coaches took the middle of the ice away, teams (for the most part) played similar collapsing-style systems in their own ends, and a group of already under-skilled skaters (compared to their NHL counterparts) were forced to try and make stuff happen from the outside. It was not very fun to watch, to say the least—unless you're from Germany or Slovenia, of course.

Even tournament favourite Russia, which boasts formidable former-NHL talent, including the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, has been pretty underwhelming. The country has underperformed since NHLers started participating at the Olympics, but now can medal for the first time since 2002 and win gold for the first time since 1992, when it was a unified Soviet club.

Has this strange men's hockey competition been good or bad for hockey? It depends who you ask. Powerhouse countries like the US, Sweden, and Canada won't suffer from their upset losses, while nations like Germany and Slovenia stand to benefit greatly from being on the right side of theirs. And that's amazing for the growth of the game. The level of play on a global stage, however, has left much to be desired.

In the end, we're not really sure what to make of it, but it's almost over. And honestly, that's just fine.