In hindsight, the Great NHL Olympics Debate of 2021-22 was akin to 2 guys arguing over a jug of water prior to the Biblical deluge. National Hockey League brass and NHLPA representatives made no secret of their conflicted interests as the players’ association pushed for 2022 Winter Olympics participation, and NHL owners griped in public but nevertheless made plans to go-along under duress. A silent majority of pond shinny fans were pleased to imagine Men’s Ice Hockey with all of the world’s best skaters taking part in February, while a loud, annoying minority of Red, White, and Boobs (and pond-bloggers who hail from another Earth where joy is considered bad) barked that
Team USA never wins “Olympic hockey sucks” and pushed for an NHL pull-out.
The omicron wave of COVID-19 made the row irrelevant, surging through North America with such force that even a supervised, sterilized, and scrubbed version of the IIHF World Junior Championships in Edmonton and Red Deer had to be cancelled 3 days into the event, resulting in thousands of broken hearts and the enormous sunk cost of having welcomed U20 teams from Asia and Europe. Dozens of planned NHL dates were also scuttled prior to the NHLPA agreeing to quit the 2022 Olympics.
For a journalist who loves Olympic ice hockey, and who takes time to mock media stories about how this-or-that is about to be COVID-cancelled (the list of “cancelled” sporting events has included the World Series, the Olympics, and the entire 2020-21 pigskin season), I’ve been tacking toward a weird sympathy for the NHL and its partners, if not the sports media at-large, over NHL skaters like Brad Marchand who’re still complaining that the North American league stacked the deck against players trying to go to Beijing.
Risk outweighs reward when a league’s been off-kilter for part of a decade. Athletes in Beijing will be restricted for safety, but China won’t welcome any NHL make-up games there, and the faster a major-league club’s schedule must progress to compensate for scrubbed face-offs, the harder it is to keep the players COVID-free. Worse still, any shared NHL-KHL-SHL outbreak in Beijing could have had truly dire consequences. A health catastrophe for not 1, but several of the world’s most important hockey leagues – such as what nearly occurred with the youngsters in Edmonton – would have been so painful for an already-beset pro hockey biz that NHL players might have forgotten all about Olympic glory when their paychecks and itineraries went kaput a few weeks later.
The Kontinental Hockey League has less to lose trying to assert gold-medal supremacy in 2022, and already has a team in China anyway, a team that – incredibly – will compete with a multi-cultural roster of 22 on behalf of the host Chinese flag. It would be stupid for the KHL not to show up, and if there’s a “KHLPA” in Russia, here’s hoping they’re still down for the Olympics too.
But state-side club hockey franchises need to worry about immediate, pressing problems before trying to go stage the greatest pond-shinny tournament of all time halfway around the world. It’s all the NHL can do to try to complete its first full schedule of games in 3 years and restore some semblance of normal operations. To focus on anything else would ignore the tremendous rise in COVID-19 cases, and could further jeopardize the NHLPA’s disappointed skaters with an ailing league and a frozen IIHF next year.
As with Men’s Ice Hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics, NHL fans will tune-in to watch journeymen pick up the banner for “C”-list national teams. But that’s no reason for speculators to despair, especially since the KHL has had 4 years to develop since sending the eventual (and fortunate) gold-medal winners to PyeongChang.
In fact, current betting odds on February 20th’s potential podium-toppers could offer a clearer-cut path to winning a profit with “futures” bets on Men’s Ice Hockey and Women’s Ice Hockey at the Beijing Games than there was in 2018, even without so much of the mainstream media’s help this time around.
When the Media Gave Away a Gimme Olympic Hockey Pick
Before COVID-19 caused the so-called “cancellations” of sports leagues enjoyed on TV a short time later (right about on schedule, no less), the Associated Press was screwing up our nation’s ice hockey reporting in other creative ways. The IOC’s largely cosmetic sanctions of Russia’s Olympic team, motivated by
the 2016 Presidential election outcome allegations of doping, led the mainstream media to concoct a fake story in late 2017 about KHL players “boycotting” the 2018 Winter Olympics. (As if a plurality of KHL skaters, hailing from outside Russia or otherwise not aligned with Moscow’s oligarchy, wouldn’t be more likely to disdain the Olympics if the International Olympic Committee had kissed Putin’s posterior).
For perspective, the AP and BBC’s “evidence” behind the reports of an Olympic “boycott” was that the KHL’s official website had removed a paragraph about Winter Olympics paperwork and training dates as the season went into motion and applicable roster-names confirmed their travel plans. The idea that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t send the real Red Machine to play for gold in Korea was absurd, even with the silly “ROC” flag and trolling Korean organizers who played sad music whenever Russia scored.
Bookmakers and bettors were stupid enough to pay attention. Team Russia (“ROC”) was offered at as long as 4/1 odds to win Men’s Ice Hockey gold in Korea, despite an overwhelming advantage for the KHL-based Russians against national teams for whom all NHL and AHL names were scratched. Gamblers who knew the KHL would skate simply had to bet units to cash-in.
Some would argue that 2018’s classic Gold Medal Game, in which Germany almost produced a “Miracle on Ice 2.0” without any of its 6-7 NHL players, showed that Russia wasn’t a “gimme” pick at average odds after all. Nonsense! Nikita Gusev’s improbable tying goal to pave the way for Russia’s 3-2 overtime victory showed that Russia was a great gold-medal pick. If Russia and Germany had played the game 10 times, Russia would have won a majority of the gold-medal matches by at least 2 or 3 goals. A scenario in which an underdog plays its best-game-ever to challenge a gold-medal favorite is factored into any intelligent futures bet. Gusev and Kirill Kaprizov gave ROC the firepower to win in any type of scenario, even with Marco Sturm expertly coaching the other side.
There’s no single story causing Men’s Ice Hockey odds to jerk-around in 2022, save for the NHLPA pull-out that caused Canada’s odds to take a tumble. Sweden and Team USA’s lines should be fattening quickly too, but they’re not, illustrating that 2022’s gold medal odds are just as subject to bias.
2022 Men’s Ice Hockey Gold Medal Futures Odds
Russian Olympic Committee +150
Czech Republic +800
North American fans think that NHL journeymen can beat All-Star teams of European professionals, a myth that gets busted almost every international cycle. But there’s more than NHL chauvinism impacting 2022’s gold medal odds. Sharks appear to have foregone imagining what the Men’s Ice Hockey tournament in Beijing will be like down-to-Earth terms…a cardinal sin when handicapping the outcome of a medal chase.
Without the NHL’s participation, the KHL assumes the NHL’s role as a gambling angle. Outside of Russia’s treasure of top scorers on 1st-place clubs, the KHL-laden teams in China would have been “blue-collar” squads against favorites made-up of NHL skaters. It follows logically that KHL skaters are precious commodities as the best professionals still available to play in Beijing, and icing a collection of KHL play-makers with Olympic and World Championship experience is just as valuable in an event featuring so many college kids, newcomers, and vagabonds.
If you’re putting a 2022 Winter Olympics men’s ice hockey team together from any other league’s rosters and junior/scholastic ranks, not the KHL, you’ve got a comparable set of disadvantages when competing against the KHL’s best as the Amur Tigers of the KHL would face if they had to play the NHL’s All-Stars.
Finland deserves optimistic odds after winning a World title with all Euro skaters in 2019. But the ice hockey culture of Sweden is so tied into the National Hockey League at this point that the league axing all of the Swedes’ NHL names from the Beijing Olympics should land Tre-Kronor a lot worse gold-medal odds than 4.5-to-1.
We can throw out the Czechs, who will skate in mud against Russia’s round-robin pool, as a legitimate 8/1 pick, and Canada will be likely to fall early in the medal round again with only Eric Staal waving the NHL banner. Regrettable as it is for Team USA fans to read, the United States hasn’t won Winter Olympics or World Championship gold in men’s ice hockey since 1980, and that’s not likely to change in 3 weeks.
So which are the best futures picks for Beijing apart from Team “ROC”?
Switzerland, Latvia…and Team China.
Team China. Yep. Uh-huh. China. We mean it. 1000-to-1 odds and everything. No BS.
Some “KRS” is involved in the pick, though.
Why Russia Will Win Gold – And How China Could Win an Honest-to-Goodness Medal
It’s not accurate to say ROC will skate with an “NHL-level” lineup in Beijing. In fact, it doesn’t give the Red Machine quite enough credit. Some of the skaters on 2022’s ROC roster have been terrific in the NHL, some of them not-so-terrific, and others never got a chance or never wanted to try. The question is whether anyone else in the world can match the play-making expertise of the KHL’s top scorers in a premier international setting, which isn’t as easy as saying “Player X didn’t make the NHL.”
Besides, even from a name-brand POV, the 2022 Red Machine will have some Thoroughbreds. Gusev will skate in the top-6 alongside Gagarin Cup playoff hero Mikhail Grigorenko and perpetual KHL scoring ace Vadim Shipachyov. The favorites’ blue line will be anchored by former Tampa Bay workhorse Nikita Nesterov, while youngster Sergei Telegin shouldn’t be confused with veteran Ivan Telegin, a frustratingly slow-paced forward who didn’t make the lineup this time. Foregoing roster spots for Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, the Russian team could boast better team speed than 2018’s squad in Korea despite Kaprizov’s glaring absence.
No nation outside of Switzerland can touch Russia’s non-NHL goaltenders. The best young KHL goalies are essentially NHL stars-in-waiting these days, and Vlad’s gladder than glad to have massive Philadelphia draft pick Ivan Fedotov available to man the pipes in Beijing. Fedotov’s teammate Alexander Samonov was brilliant in the 2021 World Championships and provides a greater measure of IIHF seasoning.
Switzerland’s netminder Leonardo Genoni could potentially out-duel Samonov or Fedotov in a low scoring nail-biter, making the Swiss a fantastic long-shot pick for gold at 25/1. It also bears noting that Switzerland’s “National League” is among the fastest-skating and deepest organizations in Europe. Eisgenossen will be 1 of the only national teams in Beijing that’s quick and disciplined enough to prevent lightning-fast Russian transition play on more compact-than-usual Olympic ice.
Latvia just doesn’t lose very much from the NHL not going to China. Few of Latvia’s best players are in the NHL, making it strange that a brand which lost to Sid the Kid’s charges 2-1 in the 2014 Olympics would be handicapped at 66/1 to beat ROC and win gold. Latvia will 1 of 2-4 teams who can do it.
Now…about that China pick. Even if WagerBop were generous enough to forecast “(+20000)” opening bronze-medal odds for the host Chinese, not “(+33000)” via the usual “divide by 3” standard for extrapolating gold-medal futures odds to prop bets on bronze bling, we would still recommend China as a damn-the-naysayers long-shot pick to contend for Men’s Ice Hockey bronze in front of shell-shocked spectators.
First, the NHL’s exit from Men’s Ice Hockey does more than just give Team China more average opposing players to skate against. Developing IIHF brands like Great Britain and Romania have shown that outstanding skaters from 2nd and 3rd-tier European leagues can skate up and down the rink with NHLers just fine. That’s a long, long way from actually matching and defeating them. NHL snipers know how to get open in the slot and devour inferior national-team goaltenders until the score is 7-0 in favor of North America’s pros, notwithstanding any parity in skating and puck-handling.
At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, an NHL superstar-laden Team USA found itself losing 0-1 to Belarus, which would go on to upset Sweden in what some consider to be the real “Miracle on Ice 2.0.” Belarus was stocked with Russian-league players, athletically comparable to China’s finest professional club skaters of 2022, and U.S. snipers began to get frustrated in a game they were favored to win by 5 goals.
At the start of the 2nd period, USA sniper Brett Hull scored a fabulous goal with a touch of comedy. Hull had begun his shift by skating into the Belarus high slot and wheeling a shot wide. Moments later, Hull skated to the same spot and lit up a 1-timer with such force that he the St. Louis legend nearly fell over. The shot zinged off the outside of a Belarus goal post. The Belarusians realized that Hull was going to circle into the slot and rifle his 1-timer at goaltender Andrei Mezin until either Hull died or Mezin gave up a goal. 2 defensemen and a forward clutched at Hull’s arms and stick as he looped into prime position again. It didn’t matter – Golden Brett left sawdust on the ice and tied the score 1-1, setting the favorites alight for an eventual blow-out victory.
Now imagine Team USA, skating just as strongly, moving the puck around with just as many disciplined Xs and Os…but without a Brett Hull. Or anyone else with the confidence and know-how to score at will on a non-NHL netminder, and instead a methodical team comprised of NCAA standouts and B-list vets. An upstart such as Belarus could have easily stuck around and won a game it was out-shot in – heck, a Soviet-style team prefers that sometimes. Sweden was plenty methodical with its all-NHL lineup that lost to Belarus 4-3 days later.
Team China could give up 50 shots to an all-Euro team and survive to tie the game 3-3 in regulation. An NHL-blessed lineup might take 50 or even 60 shots in the game from similar angles, and win 12-2. There’s no logical reason to keep China at 1000/1 odds in spite of the NHL’s circumstances, since if Olympic ice hockey is still entertaining to watch, the lack of NHL snipers in the mix is an incalculable boon for Cinderella squads.
Then there’s the 2nd angle bolstering China’s host hockey team, quite possibly more impactful than even the NHL’s non-participation.
Careful What You Wish For, NHLPA
Sportsbooks have overlooked that “Team China” will not really be “Team China” in Men’s Ice Hockey, but rather Kunlun Red Star, a KHL team competing wholesale under the Chinese flag. Kunlun Red Star’s strange Winter Olympics circumstances came about thanks to pre-omicron-wave speculation that China’s host men’s team would be humiliated by visiting NHL players.
Host hockey nations play in the Men’s and Women’s tournaments by tradition. Japan and China’s women’s teams have improved so much in 10 years that there’s no longer a lot of concern about those lineups getting embarrassed in Olympic play. But the Chinese ice hockey federation is ranked below 20th in the world, not even suited to qualify for 16-nation championships like the annual IIHF Worlds.
Team Canada, led by Sidney Crosby (at least so it was thought at the time), could score 20+ goals on Team China, and would have every reason to do so, given the stupid amount of weight attached to GF vs GA statistics in a short IOC round-robin.
In a fit of mercy and common sense, the IOC, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, and other federations agreed to allow China to hastily process all 25+ members of Kunlun Red Star, the KHL team based nearby (and the only major club hockey team based in China), to represent “Team China” in Men’s Ice Hockey this February. What was the harm? KRS is mired among the lower-tier of Kontinental Hockey League representatives, and would still have boasted virtually no chance of defeating Team Canada, Team USA, and the toughest German team in Winter Olympics history, led by All-World centerman Leon Draisaitl.
Then the NHL pull-out occurred. Not only does Beijing’s new scenario pull the average 2022 Olympic roster infinitely closer to Kunlun Red Star’s levels of size, speed, and skill, but the Chinese team also happens to be in Group A alongside the 3 out of 12 nations screwed the absolute worst by the NA professionals staying home. Team USA will be comprised of college kids and Euro journeymen (USA Hockey didn’t even snag Mark Arcobello of the Swiss league this time, which is ridiculous). Even if Staal’s squad of Maple Leaf journeymen and
the Michigan Wolverines Team USA each manage to put away China 5-2, that’s no guarantee Germany will.
Chinese skaters like Brandon Yip take up only about 6-8 of KRS’s roster spots, a crucial angle since the host team’s 3rd and 4th lines could never compete using the skaters China’s federation has vainly tried to develop in leagues like the USHL over the last 5-10 years. Yip is terrific against most KHL checkers, but it’s his club’s level of competitiveness (aka his Olympic team’s level of competitiveness) in the Russian league that offers promise. Germany’s got a similar team to the all-DEL lineup that won silver in 2018, but stronger Trager der Alder sides have flopped against inferior IIHF rosters. If Team Germany toured the KHL, they’d win most of the exhibition games and maybe lose a few. Kunlun Red Star has been “touring the KHL” for a while, and has beaten big-time opponents like CSKA Moscow, a lineup that would smash a number of the teams in Beijing this year.
In other words, China’s not going to have a “Jamaican bobsled team.” The scenario will be more as if Jamaica hosted a league of quality bobsledders from around the world, and 3 of the fastest foreign sprinters (analogous to prolific Canadian play-maker Ryan Sproul of Kunlun Red Star) were paired with the best Jamaican driver (comparable to Yip, the best Chinese-Canadian skater at KRS) for a go at the Winter Olympics.
Reaching the bronze-medal game would still be a lucky break. It would take a quarterfinal-round victory for the host Cinderella, and the Q-Finals will be full of teams that could whip Kunlun Red Star with 3 fingers (or 3 forward lines), including Russia, Finland, Switzerland, and probably Latvia. But the NHL’s pull out means that other likely Q-final bids, such as Slovakia, will be condemned to a lower-tier KHL level of team speed. It also bolsters the chances of a Switzerland, Finland, or CZE getting beaten by Slovakia, Germany, or another not-so-steep underdog in the opening playoff round on February 15th. Chaos would open the door for weird medals.
If Team China survived to Friday, February 18th, it would probably be paired against Russia (“ROC”) in the semifinals, and against another superior roster in the bronze medal game. The scant chance of 2+ “Miracle on Ice” worthy performances to cap the hosts’ run in Beijing is why China’s 1000/1 gold medal odds are so long. But if sportsbooks make the mistake of not giving
Kunlun Red Star Team China WAY more optimistic odds to finish in the top 4, perhaps 75/1, then the KHL club – er, national squad – will be among the best bets at the Games.
2022 Olympic Ice Hockey Betting: How to Wager Against the … Media
Sproul’s career path is representative of North America’s skewed perspective on IIHF shinny. There’s never been any question that the 6’4″ defenseman can compete with NHL skaters. Sproul scored in double-digits from the point in less than 50 NHL games without a regular gig on the power play. But having reached 26 years old in 2018, the New York Rangers prospect faced a potential lifetime of AHL duty with occasional call-ups. Soon he’d found a nice-enough gig with Kunlun of the KHL, where he’s granted plenty of ice time and a thinner schedule.
Nothing in that paragraph suggests Sproul can’t star against European pros and college kids for a quick sprint of 3 to 5 games in the Winter Olympics, a POV that is apparently lost on Las Vegas and London…or else Team China wouldn’t be the longest-shot on the betting board for Men’s Ice Hockey.
The best ice hockey gamblers know how to pick against the media, not just “against the public.” Speculators don’t have to wait to win a moneyline on 2022’s Olympic hockey in order to feel lucky. The good luck has already arrived, because all of the best wagers in Beijing will be pooh-poohed by the MSM for 1 reason or another. Crimvinently, that could keep the betting odds plenty generous even after they start winning games.
Switzerland’s league is criminally underrated by everybody. That keeps the Swiss at cheap odds. Latvia is a proven commodity that gets to compete against a lot weaker field in China without losing much of its own team to the NHL. Finland, according to the hockey writers of America, never beat 3 consecutive NHL All-Star-laden squads in a row to win the 2019 World Championship with almost no North American pros on the team.
Oh, it happened alright, it just also never happened. The vanishing of May, 2019 from ice hockey’s history books is a blessing for Finland’s current medal odds, which ought to be 5x shorter on the betting board than Team USA’s. Jokerit Helsinki and Finnish-league skaters combined to defeat a “PlayStation” roster from Russia in 2019’s IIHF Worlds gold medal game. Surely, a similar Suomi squad could accomplish the same in 2022 while up against a slower, more methodical Red Machine that’s missing all of its NHL top-6’ers.
Will the Russians be touted as the NHL-level team they are? Not on your life, at least not in the United States. Xenophobic snark-bloggers like Greg Wyshinski will see to that, and the NHL-4-lifers who announce Beijing’s games on North American TV won’t help. In the 2018 Olympics, Russia had come close to posting 3 consecutive shut-outs when Jeremy Roenick said, “ROC’s goaltending is terrible, they have the worst fundamentals of anyone out here.” (By mistaking the 2018 tournament’s most effective goaltending for its worst, Jeremy Roenick showed that among NHL commentators, well, he’s got the worst fundamentals of anyone out here.)
Don’t call it “unfair.” It’s more than fair to gamblers who get to pick ROC at 1.5-to-1 odds for gold. The Red Machine’s odds could also be illogically generous against Team USA if the Americans get that far.
Finally, would a Cinderella run from Team China be met with a groundswell of cheers, front-page headlines, and gold-rushes of betting action, thanks to so many Canadian-born outlanders skating on the team? Probably not, because of the politics involved, and because so many American fans have been rooting for western countries to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics altogether. Brandon Yip is about to become the “heel” wrestler in a good guy vs bad guy soap-opera, and the more goals that he scores, the worse that the state-side backlash could get.
Bob Costas is right that the IOC tacking so quickly back to China for another Games of the Olympiad raises a lot of red flags. On the flip side, the Olympics is about athletes’ contribution to the world, and there’s nothing Americans should hold against any nation’s athletes unless China’s politicians go and skate around on the ice. Beijing’s not hosting a World Summit Of The Humanities – if the 2022 Olympics were instead a Summit Of The Humanities, WagerBop would be first in line to protest China as a host of the event. But sports? The economic boon and cultural bridge-building of sports can only help China’s impoverished people suffer less oppression as time goes by, no matter how the morons from a communist government might view the Olympic Games at present.
Don’t expect Twitter and Facebook to latch on to the finer points. Even if there’s a small cult of long-time NHL fans who recognize Kunlun’s players and bet on them, if the Chinese do start winning in Group Stage, we can expect thousands of sentimental bets placed against China in the next few days, unless China is playing Russia. If Team China even comes close to beating Team USA, expect social media to explode with accusations that the Chinese “cheated,” even though it was half the NHLPA’s idea to let Kunlun skaters play in the first place.
Once again, that’s bad news for world hockey culture and education, and other stuff you’re not too worried about right now. The very same phenomenon is sick when you want to bet good teams at cheap prices!
WagerBop’s Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Futures Picks
Gold Medal: ROC (+150), Finland (+400), Switzerland (+2500), Latvia (+6600)
Tournament Prop Bets: China to Finish Top 4 at (+10000) or longer odds, Canada to Win Group A at (+125) or longer odds
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.