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NHL places USA’s young stars’ Olympic aspirations on hold

Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel (15) skates prior to the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Monday, April 3, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Whatever aspirations Buffalo Sabres second-year center Jack Eichel had of representing the United States at the Winter Olympics have been put on indefinite hold. Same goes for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie-of-the-year candidate Auston Matthews.

The NHL closed the door on USA Hockey’s next generation of stars — and the league’s players from every other nation, for that matter — from playing on the international stage by abruptly announcing it wouldn’t compete at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

The stunning reality of the decision announced on Monday began hitting home for Eichel following Buffalo’s 4-2 loss to Toronto.

“It’s a little bit disappointing as a player who takes a lot of pride in representing his country and who’s done it before,” Eichel said. “As a young kid just breaking into the league it’s something I definitely watched growing up and looked forward to.”

The news hurt even more for Eichel when recalling how he and Matthews showed glimpses of their potential a mere six months earlier playing together on Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

“As a league, we’re trying to grow our game all over the world. I think the Olympics is a good way to do it,” the 20-year-old Eichel said. “To be able to play the game on other continents, other places and allow them to see how exciting and what type of game we play, it’s a good opportunity.”

Matthews expressed disappointment while also acknowledging he’s more preoccupied with helping Toronto clinch its second playoff berth in 12 seasons.

“Yeah, of course, you’d want to go and represent your country,” said the 19-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona. “I’ve been fortunate to do it in the past at different tournaments. But, it’s not readily on my mind right now.”

Youngsters and veterans, from Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews to Connor McDavid and Henrik Lundqvist, the world’s best players called playing in the Olympics important. The league decided otherwise.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly informed the NHL Players’ Association that the matter was “officially closed.”

The NHLPA said in a statement that players are “extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision.”

The NHL had allowed its players to participate in the past five Olympics dating to 1998.

The league said no meaningful dialogue had emerged in talks with the NHLPA, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation.

Even after the IIHF had agreed to pay for players’ travel and insurance costs when the IOC refused, the NHL had been looking for more concessions that were believed to include marketing opportunities tied to the Games.

The IOC said Tuesday it “feels very sorry for the athletes,” but could not give the NHL special favors.

“The IOC, which distributes 90 percent of its revenue for the development of sport in the world, obviously cannot treat a national commercial league better than not-for-profit international sports federations which are developing sport globally,” the Olympic body said in a statement.

The league wanted the matter resolved before the playoffs begin April 12.

“The league’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself,” the NHLPA said. “NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone.”

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who led Canada to consecutive Olympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, said, “I’m just going to tell you I’m disappointed.”

Players blasted the decision.

“It’s beyond disappointing,” said Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who won a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Games. “It was one of the best experiences of my life and catapulted my career to the next level and things have been going pretty well since then.”

Lundqvist, the New York Rangers goalie, turned to Twitter.

“A huge opportunity to market the game at the biggest stage is wasted,” tweeted Lundqvist, who won the 2006 Olympic gold medal with Sweden. “But most of all, disappointing for all the players that can’t be part of the most special adventure in sports.”

Former NHL forward Brandon Prust, who’s now playing in Germany, tweeted: “Way to ruin the sport of hockey even more Gary #Olympics.”

Nancy Park, a spokeswoman for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics organizing committee, held out hope the NHL might change course by saying there’s still time for “meaningful discussions.”

The NHL has not ruled out participating in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, though the IIHF and IOC had indicated that could be conditional on the NHL going to South Korea. For now, the league is making its 2017-18 schedule without a break for the Olympics.

The world hockey body’s secretary general, Horst Lichtner, was briefing Winter Games federations on Tuesday in a previously scheduled meeting at an Olympic sports conference in Aarhus, Denmark.

“It is a pity but it is not a surprise,” ski federation president Gian Franco Kasper told The Associated Press.

Kasper, who represents winter sports on the IOC executive board, added: “There might be some players who don’t care what the NHL says.”

The league has cited the 13-hour difference from Pyeongchang to the Eastern time zone as one of its concerns. There was a 13-hour difference to Nagano in 1998, six to Turin in 2006 and nine to Sochi in 2014. Team owners have long complained that stopping the NHL season every four years wasn’t worth it and they have been wary of injuries to star players.

Still, many players expressed a strong desire to go, and Ovechkin has said he plans to go regardless of NHL participation.

“I think the players know it’s very important for us to represent our countries,” the Washington Capitals star said last month. “Everybody wants to go there.”

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AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage and John Wawrow, and AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Aarhus, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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