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Off the Post: NHL players given Olympic go-ahead

With a new school year comes a new season of NHL hockey, and now, a new columnist. My name is Belle Fraser, and I will be taking over “Off the Post” from the amazing Chad Jones, who graduated last semester. I worked with Chad on the Boston Hockey Blog during the Terriers’ 2020-21 season and learned so much from him, so it is an honor to be able to continue this column. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts and hopefully hearing yours on all things NHL this year — so let’s get into it. 

Last Friday was an exciting day for NHL players and fans alike. The Players’ Association and International Ice Hockey Federation announced their agreement to allow NHL athletes to participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. 

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

Bill Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner, discussed a longer break in the regular season around the time of the All-Star Weekend to accommodate the players heading to Beijing. As of now, the break will span from Feb. 3 to Feb. 22. However, the league has the right to pull out of the Olympic Games if it feels it’s a necessary precaution in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. 

NHL athletes have not skated on Olympic ice since the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The league skipped the 2018 Pyeongchang games with the reasoning that it disrupted the season and that the location was not logistically ideal and top players could get injured. But all of that seems benign compared to the dream of representing one’s flag. 

There’s no doubt these guys love the professional teams they play for: the fans feel like family, the city feels like home and the name on the jersey is one they’ll defend vehemently. But there’s a different type of pride in representing the place that raised today’s NHL’s stars into the great players they have become. 

I personally love this move on the NHL’s part. As a die-hard fan of the sport, I can’t wait to see these players in a whole new element, competing with and against the best of the best. It’s even more exciting, though, for the athletes who have dominated the league for the past five-plus years and now get the opportunity that every young player dreams about while lacing their skates at 5:00 a.m. for middle school practice.

Players like Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid have been headliners for years, but this will be their first time playing at the Olympic level. Not to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers won’t have a miraculous season and piece together a fairytale playoff run — I’m a New York Rangers fan, so I always err on the side of optimism these days — but neither All-Star has gotten close to Lord Stanley. 

Though early in their careers, players as talented and competitive as Matthews and McDavid always have a championship on their minds. Having the chance to taste victory in a different setting is seriously energizing. There will likely be a handful of other NHLers making their Olympic debut as loyalties shift from professional teammates to home country.  

On the coaching side of Team USA, Boston University is well represented: out of the five members of the coaching staff, three are former Terriers. Massachusetts native and BU alum Mike Sullivan has secured his spot behind the bench as head coach of the men’s team. The current Pittsburgh Penguins bossman has worked closely with USA Hockey in previous years and has found success in the NHL. Todd Reirden, Sullivan’s assistant coach in Pittsburgh, will join him in Beijing. 

John Hynes and David Quinn, who both sported the scarlet-and-white sweaters, will also assist behind the bench. Hynes has his Nashville Predators to focus on until the Olympics roll around, but this position comes at an interesting time for Quinn, who was fired as head coach of the Rangers back in May. 

Aside from being in the middle of a rebuild, the Rangers faced a surprising amount of off-ice drama last season. The Tony DeAngelo controversy, Artemi Panarin’s absence during his battle with Vladimir Putin, and Quinn himself contracting COVID-19 in the middle of the season are just some of the things that no doubt had an effect on the locker room and their performance once the puck dropped. 

I’m not trying to make excuses for Quinn’s inability to get his team past the postseason threshold. I’m simply pointing out the unprecedented challenges he had to juggle while piecing together a team with an average age of 26. I would’ve loved to see Quinn behind the bench in New York for at least one more season — give him a chance to prove himself in more normal circumstances. But fellow Terrier Chris Drury had another plan, and Quinn’s NHL stint has come to an end.

This winter’s Olympic Games will allow Quinn to get back in the coaching headspace, now with more experience and many reflections from his dull months of unemployment. Jobs are sparse and rare to come by at the professional level, so hopefully, this gives the beloved ex-BU head coach a boost into the next stage of his career. 

With October just around the corner, the amount of hockey that’s going on almost feels too good to be true after the past two years. For the first time since the 2019-20 season, the NHL will return to a full 82-game schedule and send players to the Olympics — it’s like Christmas came early. Roster projections for Team USA are already circling, and I can’t wait to see who hits the ice in Beijing come February.

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