The perfect format for Olympic hockey? Keep it 25 and under

The men's hockey tournament at the 2018 Olympic Games has produced some memorable moments but generally left us wondering whether there's a way to get NHL players back in the mix in the future. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH

The 2018 Winter Olympic men's hockey tournament is like asking for a glass of Mountain Dew and getting a warm glass of some generic supermarket Mountain Dew instead, like Kountry Mist.

It's like asking Santa for Transformers and getting Transmorphers.

It's tuning in to see the greatest athletes in their respective sports compete for gold medals on the grandest stage the world has to offer, only to find that Olympic hockey is a pedestrian version of the Spengler Cup, populated with more "so that's what happened to that guy!" moments than the "Celebrity Big Brother" house -- and slightly less entertaining.

We all figured that the NHL's decision to withdraw from the Winter Olympics was going to negatively affect the men's hockey tournament, but maybe not quite like this. Through the preliminary rounds and into qualification, hockey is a footnote to the sidebar to the main story of the Olympics. Snowboarding feels vital. Figure skating feels vital. Ice dancing nearly caused a national day of celebration in Canada. Men's hockey feels superfluous because we know the talent and the game play aren't within a country mile of the best this sport can offer.

Have there been highlights? Sure, but unpredictability and tournament upsets have limited appeal; it's as if the NCAA held March Madness, excluded the top 65 teams and then we all got excited because Akron shocked Fresno State.

By now we all know how we ended up with this turkey: The International Olympic Committee and the NHL had a yearslong standoff, with the NHL's owners seeking incentives to continue shuttering their season for an Olympic break every four years -- and specifically for reasons to do it for a South Korean market that the NHL isn't chasing.

(They also asked the IOC to move hockey to the Summer Games, as they have for the past two decades, which is about as likely as the IOC moving beach volleyball to the Winter Games.)

Meanwhile the NHL was positioning Olympic participation as a collective bargaining chip to play against the players. It was all a big, giant steaming pile of mutual avarice and -- once more, with feeling -- the fans lost out.

The solution

So how do we get the NHL back into the Olympics? To ask that is to ask: How can the NHL get more out of the Olympics? If the NHL doesn't want to shut down its season, what are the alternatives? Is there a way to make both sides happy? Where players aren't deprived of the chance to represent their countries in the Olympic Games, and by that we of course mean "for every Canadian kid to win a gold medal by their 30th birthday?"

Why yes. Yes there is:

The ideal Olympic hockey tournament format would feature players 25 and under, with roughly three over-age players eligible for each nation, as well.

Anyone who watched the sublime puck joy that was the under-23 Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey knows what's up: incredible speed and creativity, multiplied by exuberance and charisma. International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel certainly did, as he's already suggested an under-23 tournament for the 2020 Olympics if the NHL doesn't participate.

But for our ideal tournament, we'd increase the age to 25 and under, mostly so elite players could get multiple shots at starring on the Olympic stage -- but also so that elite players could play in multiple Olympics for countries that might not have the same talent pipelines as Canada and Sweden.

To that end, we'd take a page from Olympic soccer (more on that in a bit) and allow nations to have at least three "over-age" players on their rosters. If Slovenia requires Anze Kopitar or Norway needs Mats Zuccarello every four years, it makes for a better tournament that each team has them for as long as it needs them. Where this will have the most impact is goaltending: As we saw with Team North America, age caps create a very limited talent pool between the pipes. This way, if the Germans want Thomas Greiss every four years, by golly, they can have him.

Without adding over-age players, the Team USA roster in an under-25 Winter Olympic tournament in 2018 would have featured: Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Vincent Trocheck, Brock Boeser, Shayne Gostisbehere, Clayton Keller, Dylan Larkin, Matthew Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat, Brandon Saad, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy and Connor Hellebuyck.

On the Team Canada roster: Connor McDavid, Mathew Barzal, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Couturier, Sean Monahan, Jonathan Huberdeau, Jaden Schwartz, Mark Scheifele, Bo Horvat, Mitch Marner, Colton Parayko, Dougie Hamilton, Morgan Rielly, Aaron Ekblad and Matt Murray.

Also in the tournament: Nikita Kucherov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Klingberg, Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, William Karlsson, William Nylander, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Benefits for the NHL

We know the IOC will eat this up like a dog rushing over to a spilled plate of bacon, but what's in it for the NHL?

Glad you asked, because that's the essential question that has kept the league on the sideline in 2018, and potentially beyond: 20 years after Nagano, the NHL and its owners aren't quite sure what benefit they get from Olympic participation.

Let's assume the IOC and the NHLPA concede enough that the NHL is a bit more interested in sending its players to the Olympics. An under-25 tournament does two things for commissioner Gary Bettman and the suits:

1. It creates new stars rather than reaffirming established ones.

One of the biggest criticisms of the NHL Olympic experiment is that it hasn't really translated into fame and marketing gold when the players return to the league. Sidney Crosby was Sidney Crosby before he scored that overtime goal in Vancouver. You could argue that Ryan Miller and T.J. Oshie are the only players whose profiles grew thanks to the Olympics, and Miller might be the only player whose Olympic performance made him more marketable in the NHL.

The under-25 tournament puts the spotlight on rising stars. It yields the stage to the next generations. Imagine the Coyotes' Clayton Keller going from Calder Trophy candidate in an obscure American market to "that guy who beat Canada in overtime for gold." You want to finally get Aleksander Barkov over in the NHL? Watch him lead Finland to a medal like the Suomi Jonathan Toews. You want people to finally be able to pronounce "Connor Hellebuyck?" They would if he shut out the Russians.

The Olympics go from being redundant to being revelatory. And the hockey will be amazing.

2. Oh, you want to see Sidney Crosby represent Canada? Better buy a ticket to the World Cup of Hockey.

In 2016, the NHL revived the World Cup of Hockey as a financial response to the inequity of its deal with the IOC. It was an NHL tournament with NHL players, generating revenues they split among themselves. It was an event created not only for leverage against the Olympic organizers but also as its own cash cow.

What it wasn't, however: the Olympics.

It was a methodical preseason tournament with two made-up teams and a giant paperweight as its grand prize, rather than a sharply played midseason tournament with a gold medal on the line. And it will never compare to the Olympic tournament -- unless the Olympic tournament is fundamentally altered.

To that end, the NHL could learn a lesson from soccer. Like, besides "diving and embellishing are a plague within your sport and must be eradicated."

In the 1980s, the Olympics began officially allowing professionals to compete in events because the Soviets had been doing this unofficially for decades. That included soccer. The problem was that soccer already had an international tournament that pitted the best players against one another for the ultimate honor for their nations: the FIFA World Cup. There was fear that the Olympics might water down that tournament. OK, it was less "fear" than "frustration" that there would be a de facto second World Cup and the IOC would keep all the profits.

In 1992, after years of negotiations, FIFA and the IOC agreed to restrict Olympic soccer to an under-23 tournament. In 1996, that was amended to an under-23 tournament with three over-age exceptions for each country. In 2000, it was amended again, allowing for four "unlimited age" replacement players for each country, including a goalie.

If you're the NHL, this is the ideal scenario: Make the Olympics their own animal with an under-25 tournament, and make the World Cup of Hockey the full-sail best-on-best tournament.

If you want to watch Auston Matthews and Phil Kessel on the same line -- and really, who wouldn't? -- the only place to see young and veteran NHL players competing for their nations would be in the World Cup of Hockey every two or three years, making that appointment viewing.

So there you go. Problem solved.

What the NHL does during the break

OK, I guess there is that tidy conundrum we've yet to address, which is what the NHL is going to do during the under-25 Olympics.

The answer could lie in one of the following scenarios:

1. A giant two-week break for players.

When NHL players talk about how much they love the Olympics and how important it is for them to be there, please keep in mind that three-quarters of the league isn't getting anywhere near the Winter Games. They're getting a midseason vacation every four years to heal wounds, hang with the fam and just chill. The owners hate this as much as the players love it. Have some doctor say that an Olympic break is vital to player safety, and have some stathead say it creates more goals in the playoffs. The owners will come around. Or, failing that ...

2. Hold a Ryder Cup-style event.

NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus told Sports Illustrated that ratings for men's hockey are down about 30 percent at the Olympics but also indicated that interest in the NHL is also down during the Olympics.

"Our numbers are off, and if you look at the RSN [regional sports network] numbers for every NHL team over this weeklong period, at least when I looked at it, all but two teams were off versus a year ago in this window," he said.

If you're the NHL, why not acknowledge that regular-season hockey doesn't hold up against the Olympics and an under-25 tournament, and make something different: Have the over-age stars who aren't in the Olympics compete in some kind of Ryder Cup-style cash grab tournament that will draw fans and a few more eyeballs than Hurricanes-Coyotes on a Tuesday night? The NHL has talked for years about replacing the All-Star Game with a Ryder Cup; why not counterprogram the Olympics with one, if shutting down the season "for nothing" is still beyond the pale? Have a senior tournament in the Ryder Cup and a junior tournament at the Olympics. Hockey is for everyone!

Or, failing that ...

3. Just do what you did this season and keep playing the regular season, though space out the games so there aren't as many during this stretch.

Which brings us back to soccer.

The relationship between the Olympics and FIFA has been a contentious one since around 2000 because clubs don't want to lose their players during vital qualification games, and there's no consistency throughout the world on player eligibility. (FIFA's hands-off approach to this hasn't helped.)

So if this under-25 Olympic tournament were ever going to work, there would need to be a working relationship between the NHL and the member nations in order to (a) have the best young players in the Winter Games and (b) allow NHL teams to have the flexibility to ensure they aren't going to be humbled by that export of talent.

For example: The Carolina Hurricanes have nine players 25 and under. The Chicago Blackhawks have five. Even with a staggered schedule that reduces the number of games played during the Olympics -- another facet of my plan -- that's still one team being significantly affected because it's young and geographically diverse.

(We'd also have to figure out a situation in which teams could lose both goalies, as the Islanders might with Slovakia's Jaroslav Halak and Germany's Thomas Greiss.)

When the FIFA/IOC deal was being structured, Spain offered up the idea that there should be a cap on the number of players who can be called up to the Olympic team. Maybe that's something the NHL explores with regard to member nations: Russia (or whatever they're calling it these days) can have Nikita Kucherov and either Mikhail Sergachev or Vladislav Namestnikov from the Lightning, but not all three. Something like that.

What this partnership ultimately requires is for it to be a partnership. For example, there needs to be some flexibility to recall players from the Olympics if a team is affected by injuries back home. While that might create a little chaos, it speaks to one of the basic issues the NHL has with the Olympics: that they're in fact lending their talent to the IOC, with little to show for it. It's only fair that, if necessary, the NHL can revoke that loan for its member clubs.

There's a path to making this ideal international hockey setup work -- to have the youngest, brightest stars in the NHL shine even brighter, with the Olympics restricted to an under-25 (with some exceptions) tournament; and to then use that Olympic age cap to bolster the World Cup, making it the only "true" best-on-best tournament. That would make this worth the NHL's time and resources, even if it wants to continue the season during the Olympic window.

All it would take is unprecedented cooperation between the NHL, the IIHF and the IOC; unprecedented levels of revenue sharing and other concessions from the IOC to the NHL and the players; and a sacrificial willingness from the NHL's member clubs to give up their best young players (and a few old ones) for a few weeks before the final sprint to the playoffs. ("Hey, Calgary, we know you're scratching and clawing to remain on the playoff bubble; now, what if you did that without Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk and Hamilton. Fun, right?")

Yep, that's all it would take.

Maybe we should all learn to stomach Kountry Mist.