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Olympians keeping focus on winning gold, not showcasing talents to NHL

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By: USA TODAY Sports By: USA TODAY Sports
By: Sean Leahy

When the NHL announced in April that it wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, there was still a belief in hockey circles that an agreement would eventually be reached.

But as time went on, it became crystal clear that the NHL wouldn’t be participating in the Games for the first time since 1994. That opened the door for the numerous players who have been playing overseas to have the chance to represent their countries on a grand stage.

While the league will continue playing games while the Olympic tournament goes on, team executives and scouts will certainly be keeping an eye on things as you never know what kind of diamonds might be found or what types of players who once had a taste have improved over time. So while the Olympic experience will be one to cherish for all involved, it’s also an opportunity for these players to showcase their talents.

“That’s always in the back of your head. The NHL is the best league in the world. I would do anything to get back there,” said U.S. defenseman Matt Gilroy, 33, who played 225 NHL games and is now with the KHL’s Jokerit. “But then you have to embrace the opportunity where I am now, the life experience I’ve been able to [have], experiencing playing hockey, playing a game that I’ve played since I was a young kid, which is pretty special.”

“It’s definitely something that’s a possibility,” said Gilroy’s 31-year-old Jokerit teammate, Ryan Zapolski, who will likely be the Americans’ starting goaltender.

Age is certainly a factor, as well. Teams are always looking for youth and speed, and when you’ve spent a number of years on the big ice in Europe, adjusting back to the NHL sheet could be a concern for some general managers. Then you have it from the player’s perspective of having settled into their new surroundings and having found success overseas.

“I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” said U.S. defenseman Noah Welch, who plays for Vaxjo of the Swedish Hockey League and suited up 75 times in the NHL. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship.”

“I think that may be the case for some of the younger guys. I don’t think it is for myself,” said Canadian forward Wojtek Wolski, who has 451 games of NHL experience. “I’m turning 32 this year and I’ve got another year on my contract. Maybe to come back for one or two years in the NHL is a possibility, but I’ve really enjoyed my time in the KHL and playing overseas. I think the only reason to come back to the NHL would be to be close to my family and to be able to spend time with them.”

Unlike Gilroy, Welch and Wolski, Zapolski has never played in the NHL. He knows how much a goaltender’s performance in such a short tournament can do for one’s reputation, just ask Ray LeBlanc. But he’s happy in Finland and signed an extension in December.

“I’m happy here so I’m not really going to rush anything or push anything to get back to North America,” Zapolski said. “Of course, I know it’s the biggest stage, everybody’s going to be watching.”

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