GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Mark Arcobello had a choice between shuttling to and from the minor leagues in North America and taking his talents to Europe.
Arcobello, who went to Europe a year for some stability before the NHL decided not to participate in the Olympics, said he is glad he took the path less traveled because it helped him make the U.S. national team.
“This opportunity kind of solidifies that I made the right decision,” said Arcobello, who spent time with the Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs organizations. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and if I’d still be going up and down between the minors and NHL right now, I’d be probably regretting it and wishing that I had left.”
Arcobello is one of the poster boys for this unpredictable, wide-open Olympic men’s hockey tournament that begins Wednesday with the U.S. against Slovenia and Russia playing Slovakia. Even though current NHL players aren’t taking part, 94 of the 300 Olympians have played at least one NHL game and every country has at least one former player.
“People say the NHL’s not here, but it’s all NHL talent,” U.S. defenseman James Wisniewski said. “Maybe it’s not the All-Star talent that they’re looking at like a Patrick Kane or (Jonathan) Toews or (Ryan) Getzlaf — those kind of guys. But it’s still NHL talent. It’s just the guys that you really never heard of because they decided to take the European route.”
A lot of them took the European route. Players at the Olympics come from 19 different professional leagues based in 13 countries plus the NCAA and Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps.
Canada has 23 former NHL players and the U.S. 16, down to Norway and South Korea with two and Slovenia one. Russia might have the two best former NHL stars in Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, and Finland the best goaltender now who played in the NHL in Mikko Koskinen.
It’s an NHL tournament. Just of the past and future.
“Everybody has a lot of talent here,” said Kovalchuk, who leads the favored Russians after playing for the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils. “We have a great team. There are five, six teams I think that are in the same level who’s got a lot of young kids who will be future NHLers, too.”
Soon-to-be NHL talent is everywhere. Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is expected to be the No. 1 pick in June, and U.S. college players Jordan Greenway and Ryan Donato, Finland defenseman Miro Heiskanen and forward Eeli Tolvanen, and Russia forward Kirill Kaprizov should be there in no time.
Combine that young skill with over 17,000 games of NHL experience, and players expect the quality of hockey to be better than expected.
“I think it’s going to shock some people,” said U.S. defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who played for the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. “Obviously with the NHL current players not coming, it’s a little bit of a different scenario, but there’s a lot of great players here that are excited to show what they can bring to the team and with the opportunity to play on the big stage and actually compete for a medal.”
Germany coach Marco Sturm, who played 938 regular-season and 68 playoff games in the NHL, said everyone will treat it the same because “there is still gold, silver and bronze.”
Historically, the value of those medals will certainly be reduced compared to those given out in the five previous Olympics with NHL players. It’s not what hockey people like to call a “best-on-best” tournament like the 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 Olympics and the 1996, 2004 and 2016 World Cup of Hockey, though it’s far more of a mystery.
“More unpredictable because not a lot of teams know about each other,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said.
For all the scouting and video teams can use to learn about each other, one major question is who are the most dangerous players.
Kovalchuk leading the Kontinental Hockey League in scoring. Koskinen is among the KHL’s best goalies and other season trends give an indication, though the motivation of this unique chance and the quirkiness of a short tournament provide the opportunity for the tournament to be a must-watch drama.
“I do not think it will be easier (without NHL stars),” said Slovenia’s Jan Mursak, who played 46 games for the Detroit Red Wings. “It is sometimes even harder to play against the players from Europe who, for a lot of them, this is their first Olympics. I am sure they will be pumped up as much as we are.”