<
>

Young U.S. players, USA Hockey lose key opportunity on big stage

play
Is the NHL making the right decision with the Olympics? (4:04)

Craig Custance joins OTL to weigh in on the NHL's decision not to send players to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. (4:04)

Jim Slater is just the kind of player who might benefit from the NHL's huge announcement Monday that it won't be sending its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The Games will go on, of course, but Team USA's men's hockey medal chances will likely now rest on the shoulders of college kids and players like Slater - former NHLers now employed elsewhere.

In Slater's case, elsewhere means Switzerland, where he has spent two seasons after playing 584 NHL games for the Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets.

"I'd love to be in the conversation. Every kid's dream is to be an Olympic athlete," Slater told ESPN.com. "To have a chance to go would be special."

Then he pauses.

It would be a dream come true for him personally, for sure. But Slater is still a hockey player; he's still a hockey fan; he's still an American who would like to see his country win gold behind the best efforts of its best athletes.

"I'm also a believer that the best athletes in the world should be in the Olympics," Slater said. "As a fan and former [NHL] player, I definitely think the NHL players should go."

He is far from alone, especially in the United States, where USA Hockey was just about to reap the benefit of an impressive group of young NHL players.

After the NHL's explosive announcement earlier in the day Monday, Arizona-born Auston Matthews scored goal No. 39 for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It marked the most goals scored by a U.S.-born rookie, edging Minnesota's Neal Broten, who scored 38 as a rookie in the 1981-82 season. Broten also won an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal in 1980 and a Stanley Cup. He's American hockey royalty. That doesn't come with just NHL success alone.

Matthews can score all the goals he wants above the border for the Maple Leafs and he would never capture the imagination of American sports fans like Broten and that 1980 Olympic Team USA once did.

That takes a stage only the Olympics can deliver.

And this particular Olympic hockey tournament would have been the first stage for an incredible group of young Americans, blessed with the combination of skill and swagger that gave them real belief they could end Canada's gold streak.

It starts with Matthews, who is turning the best rookie season ever by an American. He gives Team USA a center it hasn't had since Mike Modano. Ron Wilson, who coached the U.S. to Olympic silver in 2010, saw firsthand how Matthews stacked up internationally as his coach during the World Junior Championships.

"I believe Auston would have done very well at the Olympics," Wilson wrote to ESPN.com in a text Monday night. "He has a knack for big games and big moments. He can do it all."

Along with Matthews, there is Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel and Calgary Flames duo Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau. Columbus has a pair of young defensemen in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski who would anchor an impressive Team USA defense. Michigan native Dylan Larkin is the one of the few players in the world with the speed to keep up with Connor McDavid -- no small consideration when facing Canada.

The Coyotes have a Missouri kid named Clayton Keller who some suggest has some of Patrick Kane in his game. Oh yeah, the Americans have Patrick Kane, too.

This would have been a great team. Fast. Young. High hopes.

Now, crushed.

"It's my first chance at making the Olympic team. It's pretty disappointing," Larkin said. "The team, the young guys that are coming up through USA Hockey, the last four drafts, there are guys all over the first round."

"It's my first chance at making the Olympic team. It's pretty disappointing.""

Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin

It's been a rough few weeks for USA Hockey. Its battle with a boycotting women's national team brought headlines that extended beyond the world of hockey. Even after that was settled with a historic four-year deal that made real gains for equality in sports, the federation's reputation took a hit.

There was a clear path to wiping out all the negativity. It started with the agreement with the women. It continued with the women's current strong showing (3-0 so far) in the World Championships. It could have peaked in the 2018 Olympics, where both the women and the men would have had a real shot at gold.

Now, even if men win an Olympic gold, it loses its impact without NHL players on the roster. Canada will always have the edge in knowing it dominated a large stretch of international play when the best players in the world were available.

There have been threats that if the NHL skips the 2018 Olympics, it won't be allowed to return for 2022 in Beijing. If that holds true, it means an entire generation of great, young American hockey players will never get a chance to represent their country while playing in their prime.

Larkin will represent Team USA in the men's World Championships this spring. He has already started texting other American players to try and build a better roster than the Americans have fielded in the past, an effort that could have built momentum into the Olympics.

"Just trying to rally the troops," he said.

He is still holding out a sliver of hope that there's an 11th-hour deal to be struck to get the players back in the Olympics for 2018. He's not alone in that hope among NHL players.

Maybe it's the optimism of youth, but these Americans players deserve that opportunity.

"We grew up watching the Vancouver Olympics, the Sochi Olympics," Larkin said. "With Canada winning the last two [Games], you want to get there. They're the champions of the world. With the youthfulness of USA Hockey, we would want to change that."