In April of 2017, the National Hockey League announced that it would not have its players go to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Plenty of people were not pleased with the loss of a potentially great Olympics featuring Penguins Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and other highly touted NHLers. Despite the unpopular decision, the NHL was adamant that the decision was final. Fast forward to January 2018 and the decision has remained – the NHL will not be sending any stars to the Olympics.
Sure, this hurts the superstars of the league and the fans. People were excited for Connor McDavid to join Team Canada and Team USA to be joined by some skilled young players. But this decision hurts some of the lesser known players, such as Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl.
For Tom, hockey runs in the family. His father, Erich, is one of the best German hockey players of all-time and a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame. Tom began his career in the German minor leagues as a high tempo offensive player, but soon took his game overseas to develop into a potential NHL player.
Tom was a 1st round pick in the CHL Import Draft and joined the Windsor Spitfires for the 2010-11 season. He was drafted by the Penguins in 2010 and joined the team after having 97 points in 97 games in the OHL with Windsor and Niagara. Many thought he’d be a steal from the 4th due to his good offensive skill and ability to put the puck in the net, but injuries derailed his rise through the minors.
After several injury-riddled AHL and ECHL seasons, Kuhnhackl finally got a call up to the NHL in the 2015-16 season. He played 42 games and managed to put up 15 points as a 4th liner. Kuhnhackl developed his game into more of a strong two-way presence in order to make the NHL as a 4th line / PK specialist. Kuhnhackl still shows off an offensive flair from time to time when he manages a breakaway or scores a goal.
Now, it is not fun to miss out on McDavid or Jack Eichel in the Olympics. But some players are suffering more, like Kuhnhackl. Plenty of NHL stars will likely get another chance if the league participates in the 2022 Olympics, but this could very well have been Tom’s only chance. While Germany did not look like a strong choice to compete for Gold, they should have had a reasonably good team with Kuhnhackl joining teammates such as Leon Draisaitl and Tobias Rieder.
There are actual reasons for the NHL’s seemingly unpopular decision. Injury risk plays a huge role – 4 players suffered season-ending injuries in Sochi including Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg. The Islanders lost John Tavares and the Panthers lost Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky. The NHL also does not reap the rewards to outweigh the costs of taking a long break during its season.
While we have to accept the NHL’s decision for this year’s winter games, it is unfortunate for a guy like Tom Kuhnhackl. His father is a legend in German sports history and this would have been his opportunity to shine for his country. He can only hope for 2022 and a potential chance at chasing the gold.