Pyeongchang Olympics Image by: Koki Nagahama/Getty Images
The International Olympic Committee has banned Russia from the 2018 Olympics and that could lead to the KHL withholding players from Pyeongchang, a move that would severely impact Canada's medal hopes.
Nobody knows at the moment how the Russian Sports Federation and the Russian government is going to react to being banned as a country from the 2018 Olympics, but if there is a boycott of the Games, the country that stands to be the biggest loser in hockey aside from the Russians themselves is Canada.
Already, Canada has had to deal with the fact that the NHL has pulled out of participating in the PyeongChang, thereby taking away the opportunity for Canadian players playing in the best league in the world from trying to win a third straight gold medal and its fourth in five Olympic Games. And if the Russians do decide to boycott the Games, and the KHL follows suit by banning all of its players – both domestic and foreign – from participating, it will have a devastating effect on Canada’s lineup, and medal hopes for 2018.
And if Russia and the KHL pull out, there will be no country hosed more badly by the NHL and the IOC than Canada. The NHL hosing has already been well documented. If the Russians were to boycott, that would be its choice. Canada, meanwhile, would be skimmed of its best players – not once, but twice – because of one league’s shortsightedness and another’s obstinateness.
In short, Canada would be pillaged. Even though Canadian Olympic team GM Sean Burke did not want to speculate on anything, he did acknowledge that a Russian/KHL boycott would make his job that much more difficult. When asked whether or not he would still be able to put together a competitive roster without Canadian KHL players, Burke said he’d have to go through all the players available. “I could say yes right now, but then if you asked me who that team would be, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Burke said. “I’d have to go through it. Our goaltending situation would change. Everything would change, obviously.”
That’s an understatement. If you look at Canada’s roster for the upcoming Channel One Cup, which gets underway next week in Moscow, 18 of the 23 skaters selected for the team and one of the two goalies play in the KHL. Of the 38 players who were on the rosters for the Sochi Hockey Open and the Karjala Cup, 23 play in the KHL. With the KHL being the most financially lucrative league to play in aside from the NHL, the Canadian content, particularly of top players, is higher there than it is in other European leagues.
If the KHL were to pull its players out of the Olympics, Canada would be without the man who is expected to be their No. 1 goalie in Ben Scrivens. It would also be missing out on a good amount of NHL-experienced players who would be able to drive the offense, players such as Wojtek Wolski, Teddy Purcell, Linden Vey (who currently sits second in KHL scoring), Matt Frattin, Rob Klinkhammer, Eric O’Dell and Gilbert Brule. On defense, it would lose out on minute-munching Chris Lee, who is second in the KHL in time on ice, and Marc-Andre Gragnani, who leads all defensemen in assists.
So what would be left for Canada? Well there would still be some players with NHL experience who can score. Daniel Paille, Andrew Ebbett, Rene Bourque and Nick Spaling would be on the roster at forward, but there would be enormous depth issues at all positions. Hockey Canada would have no choice but to fill out its roster with other players who are playing in Europe who were not under consideration or go with AHL players not under contract to NHL teams. The prospects of coming away with a medal in the Games would be grim.
The American team, meanwhile, would not be nearly as affected as Canada’s because the majority of their overseas players are not in the KHL. Team USA's defense would take a hit without KHL ice time leader Jonathan Blum and former NHLer Matt Gilroy, but it would still have access to the likes of Mark Stuart, Tom Gilbert and Bobby Saguinetti. Whether the KHL participates or not, the Americans will have their challenges scoring goals, but it will have some experience in Mark Arcobello, Brian Gionta, Jim Slater and Ryan Malone.
So now we wait. There seems to be no real feel for which way Russian president Vladimir Putin will go on this. According to Igor Eronko of Sport-Express, shortly after the IOC’s decision, the Russian Hockey Federation sent a letter to Putin signed by all the players asking him to allow the Russians to play at the Olympics under a neutral flag. Observers, meanwhile, are split. One to whom I spoke thinks there will be a boycott. Another said he thinks Putin gets no political benefit from pulling his country’s athletes out of the Games.