Olympic Toll, Old Hat For Blackhawks

With the NHL season resuming in less than a week, the Chicago Blackhawks will be returning to a bleaker reality than they’ve grown accustomed to in the past. The time away may have given the Hawks a break from their problems, but their second line center woes, along with their evaporated Central Division lead await them upon their return. To throw another curve ball into the mix, Joel Quenneville’s team will have to gauge the Olympic toll, if any, that has been taken on the 10 that were selected, especially the six that made it through to the medal games.

Does History Favor Olympic Toll?

In 2010, there was no Olympic toll on the Blackhawks as they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Marian Hossa played 7 games for Slovakia in the 2010 Olympics before helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

The 2010 games in Vancouver may seem like a distant memory, but much can be learned from them in regard to player response to any Olympic toll. Not only did four Blackhawks scratch and claw their way to the gold medal game, they exhausted themselves in Canada’s overtime triumph. Integral pieces to their Championship run that year risked injury and fatigue, yet still came away with the Stanley Cup at the end of the year nonetheless.

So why is Joel Quenneville focused more on giving his Olympians more of a rest with reduced minutes?

“The Blackhawks did experience a post-Olympic hangover, however, at least in the regular season. In the 61 games leading up to the Olympics, the Hawks banked 1.43 points per game; in the 21 games after returning that number dropped to 1.19, the third biggest drop in the league.” — Matt Horner, Global News

Yes, the Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup that season. But the 2009-10 team is not the same reflection that this season’s team sees when looking into the mirror. And if that team suffered a mini-Olympic hangover, who’s to say this year’s team won’t do the same, if not worse?

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The Olympic Toll On Non-Olympians

The Olympic toll on those who were not selected to play in Sochi can have an equal effect. While Andrew Shaw recharged his batteries in Hawaii, the worry goes from one end of the spectrum to the other. With nearly a month away from live game action, could the Blackhawks who had the most free time be the biggest liability?

“I don’t think we’ve ever visited this extended time away,” said Quenneville before the break. “I guess we’re going to have to rely on the trust that these guys are going to be ready and rested. The rusty part, hopefully if they are, we’ll have enough time to get it off of them. I would expect these guys fresh, lead the charge when they come out of the Olympic break.”

Keep in mind that these are paid professionals, however. It’d be difficult to think that the work ethic and conditioning that got these players to the NHL in the first place would all of a sudden vanish. That’s why Quenneville’s trust in his non-Olympians appears to be part of the game plan moving forward.

“Before we headed to the break, coach Joel Quenneville talked not only about the Blackhawks heading over to the Olympics but more specifically about the Blackhawks players who were not. And he said that those guys, those guys that did not play in the Olympics, they might have to take the onus of this team on when they come back out of the break,” she said. “But they’re going to have the fresher legs out of all the Blackhawks that have been going overseas. So coach Joel Quenneville said, listen, we need these guys to come out of the gate, take a little bit more of the minutes, possibly, a little bit more of the responsibility until the guys who have been over in Sochi have to pick up a little bit of the pace.

“So look for those guys, those role players to play a big key coming out of this break while the guys from Sochi get their legs back under them.” — CSN Chicago

Olympic Toll – A Risk For All

While the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings boast the largest number of Olympians (10), several other teams have sent their fair share as well. In fact, five other teams ended up sending seven players, including the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. And just as Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith play vital roles for team Canada, so do Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. In other words, it’s virtually even risk when it comes to injuries and fatigue.

Certainly, a valid argument can be made from an NHL team’s perspective. Mats Zuccarello, Aleksander Barkov, Tomas Kopecky, Henrik Zetterberg, and John Tavares have all sustained injuries in Olympic competition, with Tavares’ proving to be the most costly. But where there’s high risk, there’s high reward.

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Even with the handful of injuries sustained, the vast majority of NHL players continue to back their presence in the Olympics. “In the long run, it’s good for the game, it’s good for hockey,” said USA and Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane. “And anyone that doesn’t see it that way is crazy.”

No Olympic Toll In Popularity

Still not sold on the benefit of the NHL participation in Olympic hockey? Consider NBC Sports Network’s 4.1 million viewers who watched USA defeat Russia earlier in the tournament. The viewership marked the highest number ever for a hockey game on their network, even surpassing last season’s Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which raked in 4.0 million viewers.

With 22 games left on the regular season schedule, however, the popularity of the game will have to be thrown to the bottom of the Blackhawks’ priority list. Not only will Chicago vie to take back their division lead, an outdoor Stadium Series game looms on the horizon.

“The atmosphere is different. First, you’re colder. Second, that cold air is going in your lungs and it reminds me of when I was a kid; that’s all we had,” said former Blackhawk Tony Esposito. “But once you’re on the ice to start the game, the intensity gets picked up because you’re playing for two points. It’s exciting and it’s a great showcase for the NHL.”

What better way to see how the Blackhawks perform out of the gate? A blazing start that could melt the Soldier Field ice, or an Olympic toll that makes driving on a turnpike seem cheap?