Most of the NHL’s finest players board charter flights today in Newark,. N.J., and Atlanta for the 5,330-mile trip to Sochi, Russia, for Wednesday’s start of Olympic play. No doubt hundreds of other NHLers will also be boarding flights — heading for rare midseason Caribbean vacations.
The players get 10 days off, then reconvene for seven days of practice. The Bruins play next on Feb.26 in Buffalo, at which point there will be 25 games remaining before the playoffs. So just what will those games look like?
“It’s probably going to be a lot like playoff hockey,” Bruins center Gregory Campbell said. “The guys who come back from the Olympics are going to be in top form, and those are the guys who are the best players on most teams.
“For the rest of us, it’s been a tough grind so far, and that two weeks off will do a lot of people a lot of good as far as being ready for that sprint at the end of the year. Things that have been bothering people, minor injuries, will be gone. Also, it will be a good mental break. Guys will come back fresh and hungry.
“It’s a logjam in the Eastern Conference for the playoff spots. We’ll be playing a lot of teams in the last 25 games that are going to be desperate for points. They are going to be extremely intense games, with a lot of jockeying for position in the standings.”
There will be plenty of discussion now about whether the NHL wants to participate in future Olympics — especially if the living conditions players will find in Sochi are as grim and grimy as early reports from the Olympic sites suggest.
The next Winter Games are in Pyeongchang, South Korea, 110 miles east of Seoul. That would figure to be a much more modern and better-prepared venue than Sochi. But clearly there are mixed-feeling within the NHL about Olympic participation: Excitement about the competition, but displeasure with the upheaval it causes.
“I’m the biggest fan of Olympic hockey,” said Campbell. “I love to see the best players in the world going at it. I love to see the pride they feel in playing for their countries. I just feel it’s a tough spot for NHL players to be in, because this season is tough.
“It’s basically like last year — with the compressed schedule and travel we have to deal with. For a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, the two weeks off is really going to be helpful physically and mentally, because it just seems we’ve been playing game after game for two seasons now.
“As for the future, I don’t know. I’m torn, because I’m a huge fan of that hockey. I love the Olympics in general and I think it’s an awesome opportunity for those who get to represent their countries. You don’t want to take that opportunity away from anybody.
“For selfish reasons, it’s a tough schedule for us in the NHL. But in the grand scheme of things it’s good for hockey. It adds a lot of exposure for the game. It does a lot for the game. Everybody is a fan of it. It’s just that it makes our life a little harder.”
The bottom line, though, will probably be this: As long as the players want to go, the NHL will remain part of future Games.
“I’ve talked to some of our guys who are going about this,” said Campbell. “Those guys don’t even get a break. And it’s especially tough this year. They’re not going to Vancouver or Salt Lake City; the travels don’t get much tougher than where they’re going. And who knows what the conditions will be like.
“But you know what? I think they all accept the fact that that’s what they have to deal with in order to have this really, really rare opportunity. To play in the Olympics is a lifetime experience.”