Ice hockey-Fans lose but China boosted by NHL Beijing pull out

3 minute read

Ice Hockey - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Women's Gold Medal Final Match - Canada v USA - Gangneung Hockey Centre, Gangneung, South Korea - February 22, 2018 - Brianna Decker of U.S. and Marie-Philip Poulin of Canada in action. REUTERS/David W Cerny/File Photo

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Jan 24 (Reuters) - Fans may be disappointed by the National Hockey League pulling out of the Olympics but the decision was no doubt welcomed by Chinese officials who were braced for humiliating thrashings by their sporting and geo-political rivals.

Such were fears the Chinese men's team might be so outclassed it would prove an embarrassment to the sport and the hosts that the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) considered pulling China from the event in favour of Norway.

However, a surge of COVID-19 in NHL locker rooms causing the postponement of more than 100 games triggered an Olympic pull-out clause for the league throwing China a face-saving lifeline.

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No longer will the Chinese meet Canadian and U.S. teams stacked with NHL All-Stars but instead far less threatening rosters cobbled together mostly from colleges and minor leagues.

In another twist, the hosts might have gained an advantage with the core of their squad playing for Kunlun Red Star, a China-based team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

In contrast, a U.S. squad of mainly college players will not have had any practice until they arrive in Beijing on Feb. 3.

"If they (China) have 14 or 15 of those players who play with Kunlun in the KHL they are going to be competitive, the scores respectable," Dave King, one of the most respected names in international hockey, told Reuters.

"They are going to have some challenges but now they'll be competitive. They have the potential to surprise somebody," added King, who was head coach of Canada at three Olympics and worked with Japan to prepare them for the 1998 Nagano Games.

Without the NHL, television ratings for hockey will suffer but the competition will be more compelling and wide open.

Russia's status has been elevated from medal contenders to gold medal favourites, while Canada's run of three consecutive podium finishes, including gold in 2010 and 2014, suddenly appears in danger of coming to an end.

The 2018 Pyeongchang Games underscored how unpredictable Olympic hockey can be without the NHL when surprise package Germany made the podium for the second time and first since 1976 as they took silver after a 4-3 overtime loss to Russia.

While the women's tournament has grown increasingly competitive, and will be expanded from eight to 10 teams in Beijing, the gold is expected to come down to a battle between North American rivals Canada and the United States as it has at almost every Olympics and world championship.

The U.S. took gold at the first Olympics to feature the women's event at the 1998 Games and the last in 2018, beating Canada both times. The Canadians swept four golds in between.

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Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris

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