“Yeah, that sucks.”
Winnipeg Jets left-winger Kyle Connor needed only three words to fully capture what many hockey players and fans were feeling about the news that the NHL and NHLPA were about to pull out of Olympic hockey participation.
That news has since become official and given the circumstances in the world as it relates to this fourth wave of the pandemic, you could also say it was inevitable.
Connor’s frustration is certainly understandable.
This is a player who was already robbed of the opportunity to suit up for his country at the world junior hockey championship as a 19-year-old, despite a dominant season as a freshman with the University of Michigan Wolverines.
Not only has he led the Jets in scoring with 18 goals and 32 points in 30 games, but he was also trending to be a key cog with Team USA and a good bet to be riding shotgun with Auston Matthews on the top line.
“We made this a big part of our collective bargaining agreement as the players to try to bring the Olympics back and just create so many memories,” said Connor. “Yeah, if the opportunity presents itself down the road, it would be something I would definitely cherish. It would be pretty cool to be a part of it. That being said, it happens every four years so we’ll cross that path when it comes time.”
Connor Hellebuyck was in good position to be the starting goalie for the United States and he’s already setting his sights on 2026.
“If the next one is in four years, I’ll be 32 and I know I’ll still be playing my best hockey. But we’ll see, we’ll see if it’s the same story,” said Hellebuyck.
“It was going to be an awesome opportunity to play but I guess that’s just what we have to deal with.”
Given his versatility and defensive acumen, Andrew Copp was also under consideration for the U.S. team.
As a pending unrestricted free agent, shining under the bright lights would have been an opportunity for Copp to further boost his stock, whether he re-ups with the Jets or hits the open market.
The experience for Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers would have been deeply personal.
Not only was he at the heart of Denmark qualifying for the event for the first time ever, but he was also about to share the journey with his father Heinz, who is the head coach of the national team.
Ehlers has been part of many captivating moments for his country, but his Olympic dream is also on hold.
An uneven start for Jets centre Mark Scheifele had left him on the bubble for Team Canada.
Many folks had him on the outside looking in, while others still had him in the mix to be the 13th or 14th forward, despite stiff competition from players who got off to a strong start.
The absence of a best-on-best tournament for NHLers is definitely unfortunate and reinforces the need to get the World Cup of Hockey back on schedule.
Obviously, that won’t have the same cache for some players or observers, but it’s something that could help grow the sport.
But that’s a topic of discussion for another day.
The pursuit of an Olympic roster spot was a storyline to monitor for several members of the Jets going into this season and that chase has yielded mixed results so far.
Some players were able to elevate their level of play, while others didn’t quite measure up or may have been in jeopardy of missing out with roster announcements looming.
Either way, the question remains: what impact, if any, might this have on the Jets moving forward?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but a letdown certainly isn’t a guarantee.
In fact, there could be some unintended benefits.
As exhilarating as the experience would have been, there would also be a physical and emotional toll attached to it.
However, having a group of players suit up in a high-pressure environment is something that could pay big dividends when it comes to facing similar situations either during a stretch run or into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Being around the best players on the planet also provides the opportunity to pick up a few tricks of the trade from those who have captured the Stanley Cup or been victorious on the international stage.
That potential learning opportunity has been put on hold for the time being, leaving the Jets to focus on the final 52 games on the regular-season schedule.
For someone like Hellebuyck, not being able to compete for a gold medal clearly has some frustration attached to it — and understandably so.
In the short term, it will allow him to stay a bit fresher in terms of his workload.
After starting 24 of 30 games so far, Hellebuyck is going to be leaned on heavily by the Jets as the season continues and he is easily trending to eclipse 60 games for the third time in his career.
So having some extra time to recharge could have some benefits in the grand scheme of things.
Through 30 games, the Jets agree with the assessment of former head coach Paul Maurice, that they have underperformed.
With a record of 14-11-5, the Jets are fifth in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference with 33 points.
For a team that went into the season expecting to return to contender status, that’s not good enough.
There have been signs of a group with the potential to contend, but special teams require significant improvement and above all else, one thing has been sorely lacking.
“We’ve played some good hockey and we’ve played some hockey that we need to improve on. Our consistency is really the biggest part of what I see needs to improve upon after Christmas,” said Hellebuyck.
“Like I was saying a little while ago, after Christmas teams are getting better and the teams that make the playoffs just continue to win and win and win. It’s really hard to gain points on people. We really have to find a way to be consistent and be reliable for each other and play that same strong game that we know we can.”
This group feels like they have more to give and now it’s a matter of doing what’s required in order to reach its peak.
“There’s some good, but I think this team has a lot of potential that we haven’t hit yet,” said Connor. “Even me, personally, I think we’ve still got another level to get to and I think this break is almost coming at a good time for us to kind of regroup, spend the holidays with the family, almost a mental break, and come back for a big second half.”
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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