Noah Hanifin’s Twitter page has an American flag in the header, so you know how he feels about playing hockey for the U.S.
“It’s always an honor putting on your country’s jersey,” Hanifin said.
After completing his second season with the Carolina Hurricanes, the defenseman has joined Team USA for the 2017 IIHF World Championship. Hanifin is one of seven Canes competing in the Worlds — Jeff Skinner has three goals in three games for Canada — and faced off against some Carolina teammates Monday when the U.S. took on Sweden in a preliminary round game.
At times Monday, Hanifin was on the ice defending against a Swedish line that included Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask. Lindholm scored two first-period goals for Sweden but Team USA won 4-3 in Cologne, Germany.
But playing in a World Championship is one thing. What Hanifin and others want is the opportunity to play for their countries in the Olympic Games, saying, “To be able to do that would be a dream come true.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced last month the league would not participate in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, saying it would be too disruptive to the regular-season schedule. There also were concerns about injuries, about insurance and travels costs for the players.
The NHL declaration that the matter now is “officially closed” has not been well-received. NHL players have competed in every Olympics since 1998 and IIHF president Rene Fasel said Tuesday that he still hopes to convince Bettman and the NHL to not skip the 2018 Games.
“It’s a bad decision,” said Canes defenseman Justin Faulk, a member of Team USA in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. “I think we all know that the players want to go.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for the NHL and hockey to reach markets it hasn’t been able to reach, and the Olympics is the greatest stage. The Olympics is the showcase of the best athletes in the world, and to take away the hockey aspect of it is not the best thing to do.”
Canes forwards Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen both were selected for the Finnish national team last fall in the World Cup of Hockey. Aho is at the 2017 Worlds and starring for Finland, and Teravainen might have been if he was not in contract talks with the Canes.
Asked about the Olympics, Aho said, “It has been a dream for me, too. I think it is for every Finnish kid. It’s a pretty huge thing.”
Fasel, in a press conference Tuesday in Paris, said negotiations with the NHL Players Association and the International Olympic Committee still are ongoing about the 2018 Games.
“I never give up until the end,” Fasel said. “It’s never too late. ... If (the NHL) wants to be global and promote the brand, the Olympics is the place to go. The players want to go, so I really don’t understand. If Gary does not go, the fans will not be happy, the players will not be happy and the whole world will not be happy.
“We’ve played before without the NHL and we will have a great tournament with or without the the NHL. We don’t have a better platform for our sport than the Olympics. There is nothing bigger.”
Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has been outspoken in saying he would play for Team Russia in the 2018 Games, regardless. It’s unclear how many other players might do the same.
Aho said he wasn’t prepared to make that kind of bold move if invited by the Finnish federation to join the Olympic team, saying, “It’s the NHL’s decision and (the Hurricanes) pay us and it’s our job to play. It would be nice to play but this is our job.”
Faulk was chosen for Team USA in 2014 but did not get to play until the final two games when veteran defenseman Paul Martin was unable to go.
Faulk’s first game was against Canada in the semifinals, when the Canadians emerged with a tense 1-0 victory. He also played as the U.S. lost to Finland in the bronze-medal game.
“I had a front-row seat for the best hockey game in a long time, the U.S.-Canada game,” Faulk said. “I enjoyed every minute of it and I was on the bench for all but two shifts. It’s just awesome to be in that atmosphere. It’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life and one of the coolest things in hockey I’ll probably ever have the opportunity to do.”
Haggling over the insurance and travels costs was an initial stumbling block. The league also made an offer to the NHLPA that the players extend the collective bargaining agreement for three years in exchange for being able to go — an offer the NHLPA turned down.
“Maybe the talking isn’t done yet,” Faulk said. “They must be expecting the players to give something up for it. I don’t think that’s very reasonable.”
The door does remain open for NHL players going to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China. If so, that could be the best chance for Hanifin, Aho and the others, given their ages.
“Hopefully I will one day play in the Olympics,” Aho said. “I’ve watched every Olympics, especially hockey. Those games are pretty unbelievable.”