Canada’s women ponder first Winter Olympics without their NHL counterparts

Women ponder Olympics without NHLers

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — The NHL’s decision not to release players for next year’s Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea comes as a surprise to some of the Canadian players at the women’s world hockey championship.

“We were kind of shocked. We thought they’d figure something out to get them there,” forward Natalie Spooner said Tuesday.

“What the Games are about really is showing the best of the best. We still look up to them as being phenomenal hockey players, so to not see them there, I think will be sad.”

The women are facing a first Winter Olympics without NHL players there. Women’s hockey was introduced to the Olympic program in 1998, the same year NHL players began participating.

Without the star power of names such as Crosby, McDavid, Matthews, Kopitar, Oshie and Eriksson, will the women’s tournament get more of the spotlight in Pyeongchang?

“That’s something we’ll get to see, I guess. It’s hard to say if it will get more attention or not,” defenceman Lauriane Rougeau said.

“We just want to showcase our game as much as possible. The Olympics is always the biggest stage for us every four years. It might become a little bit more attention on us.”

The women liked having the NHL players there and running into the Canadian men playing table tennis in the team lounge.

“For me, it’s a great experience to be around NHLers,” Rougeau said. “They’re down to earth. They’re playing ping pong with us. It’s a great experience to have them at the Olympics.”

The women on Canada’s world championship roster are too young to recall Hockey Canada’s full time national men’s team program of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Like other Canadian hockey fans, the women wonder which men will be their Olympic teammates next year.

“It’s a pretty cool experience for those players who wouldn’t have had the opportunity,” two-time Olympian Rebecca Johnston said.

The women’s team in Pyeongchang will likely have far more previous Olympic experience than the men. For example, it would be the fourth Winter Games for forward Meghan Agosta.

The Olympic environment is like no other for an athlete, so Johnston is ready to give the men the benefit of her experience.

“If they ask me, sure, I’ll give them advice,” she said. “I’ll help them out if I can. Anything for a fellow Canadian athlete.”

The Americans defending world women’s champions, also took notice at the NHL’s controversial decision.

“I think the whole world’s following that, obviously,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said Monday night. “We talked about it a little bit at meal. Just everyone, ‘Have you heard? Have you heard?’ It is what it is. It’s obviously a decision that the NHL felt they had to make. Has nothing to do with us. We’ll see what happens.”

U.S. teammate Hannah Brandt said she could understand why fans might be unhappy about the NHL’s decision .

“I think it’s disappointing for everyone. I think people want to see the best players in the Olympics, but it’s hard to really — it’s a business decision,” Brandt said. “I think it’s disappointing for fans, definitely.”

— With files from The Associated Press

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press