Connor Hellebuyck is one of the best hockey players in the world. He won the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in the NHL two seasons ago and received serious Hart Trophy buzz after dragging a leaky Winnipeg Jets defense to the playoffs. He’s led the NHL in saves three years running, and at 28 years old is very much in his prime.
Yet he’s never played for his country in a best-on-best international tournament. Hellebuyck was the favorite to start in net for Team USA in the forthcoming Olympics in Beijing, until the NHL and NHLPA reached an agreement Tuesday to pull out amid a new outbreak of COVID-19.
“If the next one is in four years, I’ll be 32,” a frustrated Hellebuyck told reporters in response to rumors of a withdrawal. “I know I’ll still be playing my best hockey, but we’ll see if it’s the same story then. It was going to be an awesome opportunity to play, but I guess that’s just what we have to deal with.”
Hellebuyck has good reason to be disappointed; the Beijing Games were set to be the first Olympic appearance for NHL players in eight years, and the most competitive international men’s hockey tournament since the 2016 World Cup. But with a new variant of COVID ripping through NHL rosters like Connor McDavid through the Arizona Coyotes defense—well, like any NHL forward through the Arizona Coyotes defense—the league is taking a hiatus until after Christmas and will need to use the scheduled Olympic break to make up games.
Hellebuyck called the decision “overkill,” but it’s hard to argue with the underlying logic. With this new, more communicable variant on the loose, some teams have had to put basically their entire active roster in health and safety protocols. The league has already suspended cross-border travel and postponed numerous games in order to buy time to come up with a plan for how to move forward.
What the league and the players union will ultimately settle on—to say nothing of how governmental health departments on both sides of the border will affect any course of action—remains to be seen. All they know now is that they don’t know enough to make an informed decision for the rest of the season, or to send dozens of players across the Pacific for three weeks.
Nevertheless, the players are right to be frustrated. The often fractious relationship between the NHL, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Ice Hockey Federation (the sport’s international governing body) requires tournaments to be organized years in advance. And after the NHL pulled out of the Pyeongchang Games four years ago, the NHLPA made Olympic appearances a priority in its last collective bargaining agreement.
Even though the NHL’s reasons for skipping the Olympics are less venal now than they were four years ago, the 12-year gap between Sochi 2014 and the 2026 Games in Italy represents an entire career’s worth of lost top-level international competition for some of the game’s biggest stars. Sidney Crosby was just 22 years old when he scored his gold-medal-winning overtime goal in 2010. That moment, painful though it may be for American fans to re-live, was supposed to herald a new era of Canadian international dominance with Crosby at the helm. That only kind of happened; Crosby captained Canada to Olympic gold in 2014 and World Cup gold in 2016, but hasn’t suited up for Team Canada since.
In an interview with Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, Crosby called the prospect of missing the Olympics “disappointing,” which is practically a Richard Ford novel for a player who has fewer interesting on-the-record quotes in his career than Olympic gold medals. Said Crosby: “I know from experience how special and unique the Olympics are. And not only thinking about my experience, but thinking of the guys that haven’t had the opportunity to be part of it.”
Consider Tampa Bay Lighting captain Steven Stamkos, who was on his way to a 51-goal season in 2009-10 but didn’t make the cut for the Canadian roster going to Vancouver. Not to worry, the 19-year-old Stamkos must’ve thought at the time, surely he’d have other chances at an Olympic medal.
But a broken leg kept Stamkos from making the trip to Sochi, and he’ll turn 36 on the second day of the 2026 Olympics. Stamkos is all too aware that his Olympic dream is basically over. “You grow up dreaming of winning a Stanley Cup, and I’ve been able to accomplish that,” he said Tuesday. “You grow up wanting to represent your country and win a gold medal. That’s something I probably won’t have a chance to do now.”
Stamkos did make it to the World Cup in 2016, as did his highly decorated European teammates Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy (though Vasilevskiy didn’t get off the Team Russia bench at that tournament). But it’s not the Olympics. Together, those four—along with 25-year-old Team Canada hopeful Brayden Point—make up the core of the Lightning teams that have come to define this era of NHL history. But none of them have ever made an Olympic team.
The 2016 World Cup, in addition to being slightly unsatisfying for lack of Olympic imprimatur, also featured two composite teams—Team Europe and the North American 23-and-under team—that prevented some of this generation’s defining stars from playing for their country.
Among those were Hellebuyck, who was Team North America’s third goalie and didn’t play, and the core of the roster that took home world junior gold for the U.S. in 2013: John Gibson, Johnny Gaudreau, Seth Jones, and J.T. Miller, among others. None of them has had the chance to play for his country at a meaningful senior tournament.
Neither, somewhat astoundingly, have fellow TNA alums McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Eichel, and Auston Matthews, or former MVP and scoring champion Leon Draisaitl, who played for Team Europe.
These Olympics were supposed to be the major international debut for a generation of young up-and-coming NHL talents, a 23-and-under crew that includes Switzerland’s Nico Hischier, Russia’s Andrei Svechnikov, and Team USA’s Adam Fox. But McDavid, Matthews, and Draisaitl aren’t the stars of tomorrow—they’re the league’s tentpole attractions, generation-defining players on par with Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. And even if the NHL releases them for the 2026 Olympics, they’re going to be pushing 30 by the time those Games roll around.
Not every NHL legend gets a chance at the kind of Olympic glory that helped define Crosby’s career, or Dominik Hasek’s, or Peter Forsberg’s. Wayne Gretzky’s sole appearance came at age 37, and ended with him staring off into space on the Canada bench after one of the most disappointing losses in modern Olympic history.
Gretzky, however, also played in four Canada Cups and a World Cup. That’s more than can be said for this generation of stars. Imagine the McDavid-Matthews rivalry with national pride on the line, or Hedman’s Sweden against Kucherov’s Russia. Indeed, we have to imagine, because we’ve never seen the real thing—and won’t for at least a few more years.
There’s no one to blame, really, for this Olympics going by without McDavid, Matthews, and the rest. And until and unless the pandemic is well and truly behind us, these cruel twists of fate will keep on coming. But this cohort of elite men’s hockey players is losing its chance for serious international competition, and that absence becomes more sorely felt with each passing year.