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An NHL-less Winter Olympics gives NBC chance at underdog USA storyline

Team USA's Jordan Greenway poses for a portrait

Team USA's Jordan Greenway poses for a portrait at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 25, 2017, in Park City, Utah. Credit: AP / Rick Bowmer

For many traditional sports fans who do not have a taste for figure skating, snowboarding, biathlon and the like, men’s hockey long has been the prime attraction of the Winter Olympics.

That was especially true in the 20 years that NHL players took part. But this time NBC must cover a tournament absent players from the best league on Earth.

It will be a challenge, but so it will go in Pyeongchang, South Korea, after the NHL and IOC failed to come up with a plan to make the long, mid-season break worth the NHL’s while.

This has put the NHL’s United States TV partner, NBC, in an awkward position as it prepares to carry the event next month. But network executives are doing their best to put on brave faces.

“I think hockey fans are hockey fans, and it’s the Olympics and hockey,” Jim Bell, president of production for NBC Olympics, said at a recent event to promote coverage of the Games.

“So while a year ago it felt like a bit of a disappointment, I think that now when that puck drops people are going to be ready to go and fired up to watch it.”

Said executive producer Sam Flood, “I think it can be a really positive story. Would we like NHL players to be there? Of course. But this is a pretty exciting opportunity for some neat stories.”

Russia is the presumed favorite. It obviously would help NBC if a U.S. team consisting mostly of European league pros and partly of current college players is able to advance.

“The [benefit of] a U.S. team performing well — or a U.S. athlete performing well — that is true in any sport,” Bell said. “But I think particularly given the history, we know with Team USA, yeah, that would be nice if we caught lightning in a bottle there.”

That was a reference to 1980, of course, which is the last time the United States won gold in the Olympics, when college players filled the roster. (Team USA won silver medals at the 2002 and 2010 Olympics.)

“I think there will be more curiosity if the USA wins a few games early, because is it 1980 revisited?” Flood said. “And there are some good college stories in there. It’s underdogs, players who either didn’t make it in the NHL or retired from the NHL and are taking one more crack at it, and college kids.”

NBC’s lead NHL announcer, Doc Emrick, will not be in South Korea. The play-by-play voices for the tournament will be Kenny Albert and Gord Miller, with Mike Milbury as lead analyst.

If the U.S. men falter, there always are the women. The United States and Canada are the heavy favorites to meet for the gold medal.

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