The upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang will have a vastly different looking hockey tournament than years past. The NHL won’t have a presence at the Olympics games for the first time since 1994 after pulling its players from the event back in April.
Russia also will not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, after being banned from the tournament due to a doping scandal. Any Russians that do decide to compete will have do so under a neutral banner.
As such, players from other professional and amateur leagues around the world will make up most of the rosters of the 11 countries participating — plus the Olympic Athletes from Russia, as they’ll be called — in 2018. While we won’t know the finalized rosters until January, almost every country participating in the Olympic hockey tournament is impacted by the NHL’s, and the International Olympic Committee’s, decision.
Here’s a comprehensive — but subject to change — list of the leagues that will be allowing players will come from for the upcoming 2018 Olympics.
The American Hockey League
The AHL is a professional minor hockey league with the most direct ties to the NHL, and includes a total of 30 teams throughout the United States and Canada. This developmental league contains many young players who have yet to reach the NHL, players who shuttle back and forth between the NHL and its AHL affiliate, along with long-term minor leaguers.
While the NHL is out, hockey players on minor league-only deals will be able to participate. That does not mean players on two-way deals or those who had been sent to the AHL mid-season. The AHL is mostly used to hold players on NHL contracts who are loaned back and forth, but there are players that play strictly on AHL contracts who will be eligible.
Examples: Ryan Malone (Iowa Wild), Darren Archibald (Utica Comets), Colin Smith (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins)
NHL free agents
NHL free agency isn’t a league, but is a pool of hockey players who have previous experience in the league.
There are a fair number of hockey players currently without contracts in any league, for one reason or another, and who have yet to retire. While the list isn’t extensive, it includes NHL veterans who could be used in a pinch if needed to help round out teams.
Examples: Brian Gionta (Team USA), Jarome Iginla (Team Canada), Dennis Wideman (Team Canada)
The Kontinental Hockey League, for now
The KHL is the second biggest hockey league in the world behind the NHL, and is the premier league of choice in Europe and Asia. This league often includes local European or Asian players — often times Russians — who are bridging the gap between minor leagues and the NHL, former NHL veterans looking to continue playing later in their careers, and life-long members of the KHL.
At the moment, the biggest pool of resources for many countries such as the United States and Canada is the KHL, which as of this moment is supplying players for the Olympics. Now that the IOC has banned Russia as a whole for country-wide doping allegations, things are up in the air. The KHL has threatened to block its players from participating if Russia is banned, taking not just Russian players out of the equation, but many others from various countries as well.
Now that the ruling has come to pass, we’ll likely know the KHL’s fate soon enough. However, it is tricky in that since the KHL is operated by the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, under IIHF rules it would have to release foreign players to play for their respective countries.
Examples: Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA Saint Petersburg), Pavel Datsyuk (SKA Saint Petersburg), Max Talbot (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl)
NCAA hockey is America’s collegiate level of the sport, operating in much of the same role college football or college basketball do for their respective sports. College hockey players are, clearly, playing through their collegiate years, are sometimes draftees of NHL teams, or could be picked up by an NHL team later as a free agent.
College hockey has a real chance to put a few talented players on Olympic rosters. The precedent is there for college kids to succeed at the Olympic level given the 1980 games, and who’s to say there won’t be some standouts from the NCAA. Team USA head coach Tony Granato is currently in his first year coaching the Wisconsin Badgers, so he no doubt knows who’s the biggest and brightest college stars to look at.
Examples: Troy Terry (University of Denver), Jordan Greenway (Boston University), Henrik Borgström (University of Denver)
Most European nations have at least one established hockey league in their country, with some of the bigger countries like Sweden and Germany hosting lower tiered leagues. In European hockey leagues, local players, NHL veterans, and draftees of NHL clubs often play as a stepping stone to either the KHL or NHL. There are also long-term players of the European leagues that never make it past that level.
While countries like Finland, Germany, and Norway will have trouble finding hockey players in the AHL and college, many of their players will come from the vast European hockey leagues that dominate the map. To name a few, the Swedish Hockey League, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga in Germany, the National League in Switzerland, and the Czech Extraliga will help the European nations field teams.
Examples: Martin Erat (Czech), Viktor Stalberg (National League), Christian Ehrhoff (DEL)
Much like the European leagues, Asian leagues fill the same stepping-stone role in their respective countries. Most countries, however, have just one league as the sport is still taking root and growing in Asia as a whole. Also, the leagues are mostly filled with local hockey players, as NHL veterans often head to the KHL to play out the rest of their careers.
As the tournament’s lone Asian team, the South Koreans will also rely on their local hockey leagues to pull players from. Asia League Ice Hockey will provide most, if not all, of the South Korean team for the upcoming Olympics. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the team is that there’s so few players — just over 2,600 in total — that they have Canadian imports like goaltender Matt Dalton and defenseman Eric Regan filling roles where they can.
Examples: Kim Won-jung (Anyang Halla), Mike Testwuide (High1), Lee Don-ku (Anyang Halla)