LeBrun: NHL’s lost generation of Olympians is ‘dying for’ its shot at best-on-best play in 2026

EDMONTON, CANADA - MAY 8: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers wins a draw from Jack Eichel #9 of the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the first period in Game Three of the Second Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Lawrence Scott/Getty Images)
By Pierre LeBrun
Sep. 19, 2023

HENDERSON, Nev. — They are the lost generation for Olympic men’s ice hockey.

Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Jack Eichel … the list goes on. They have been the face of their NHL teams and of the league itself for nearly a decade, but have not a single Olympic Games experience under their belt to show for it.


“I like that you called it ‘lost generation.’ I certainly feel that way,” McDavid said last week during the NHL player tour.

It has to finally change with the February 2026 Milano-Cortina Winter Games.

“Yeah, it’s massive,” Draisaitl said.

“It would mean everything,” Dylan Larkin agreed.

“Hopefully the NHL and the players’ association, we can all find a way to make it happen,” Eichel said. “Because I know the players are dying for it. I’m sure all the fans in the world are dying for it.”

The NHL hasn’t participated since 2014 in Sochi, Russia, when Sidney Crosby and Team Canada defended their Olympic title in surgical fashion. NHLers skipped 2018 without an agreement and then the league canceled plans to send its players to China in 2022 because of COVID-19 concerns and an already interrupted schedule.

Read more: What rule changes do NHL players want to see? We asked 55 of the biggest stars

Which was understandable, but still, it adds up to what will be 12 years without NHL participation by the time the puck drops in Italy in ’26.

Enough already.

“I look at all those guys that played on the (Team North America) under-23 team at the 2016 World Cup — Auston, Jack, Nathan, myself — you know, we’ve never had the chance or even the opportunity to make one of these teams, let alone even play in one of these,” McDavid said.

“So, I feel like it’s super important for hockey to go back. I really, really do.”

The world’s best player emphasized “really” in his answer. Then he pointed to what baseball got last spring.

“What the World Baseball Classic did last year with Japan and the U.S., everyone was talking about it,” McDavid said. “I don’t watch a lot of baseball. I watched that game. You talk about growing the game and doing all these things, well, you’ve got to have the best-on-best play on the biggest stage in sports, and that’s the Olympics.


“It’s super exciting to think that we could go — and expect to go.”

Oilers teammate and German superstar Draisaitl agreed.

“You have some of the greatest players in a great age right now that haven’t played for their country in a best-on-best tournament, right?” he said. “We’re talking MacKinnon, McDavid, Matthews, you go on and on and on, these guys haven’t played for their country.

“I would love nothing more than to suit up for Germany and bring our team together and show what we’re all about.”

Teammates Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl would love to face off on opposite sides in the 2026 Games. (Justin Berl / Getty Images)

Draisaitl did add that he understands the business side of negotiating that Olympic deal for ’26, and 22-year-old Jack Hughes likewise expressed a bit of caution.

“The most important thing you said there was ‘If’ it happens,'” the Devils star responded to my Olympics question. “I think every player would like it to happen, of course.”

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association have an agreement in the CBA as far as doing all they can to participate in the 2026 Winter Games. But that leaves the most complicated part still to iron out: negotiating an Olympic deal with the IOC and IIHF.

Those talks have been underway for a while now, involving the NHL, NHLPA, IOC and IIHF.

“We’ve identified where the issues might be, and there’s no surprises here, right?,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said last week. “It’s player insurance and the cost of player insurance and who picks that up. It’s the cost of travel and the mode of travel. I think the only way this works for 170 NHL players … is you rent some charters and you fly them to Italy and then fly them home when the tournament’s over. Those are costs that historically have been picked up by the IOC/IIHF/local organizing committees. The negotiation is really how do you cover those costs? Who’s responsible for them? Is there some risk-shifting that goes on?”


Asked for a time frame for an Olympic deal to be ironed out, Daly said an announcement could hopefully come “by the end of the calendar year. But, you know, could that slip? Sure it could slip.”

So hopefully an answer by the end of this regular season at least.

As for best-on-best hockey, Daly also reiterated that the NHL and NHLPA hope to bring back a World Cup in February 2025.

“It’s not going to be a typical World Cup tournament,” Daly said. “We’ve come to the realization that we’re really too close in time to try to plan a regular World Cup tournament.”

Particularly, Daly said, with the uncertainty of having a Russian team or not, or Russian players or not.

“So I think we’re focused on an alternative type of tournament that leverages kind of the unique internationality of our sport,” Daly said. “And so that’s the process we’re in now working with the players’ association really to design something that we can plug into February of ’25.”

And then the hope, Daly said, if an Olympic deal can be reached for ’26 is to finally have a normalized, rotating scenario in which “you have a World Cup in ’28, Olympics in ’30, World Cup in ’32, Olympics in ’34” and so on.

Of course, this has been the shared NHL-NHLPA vision for a very long time, as far as having a regular rotation, and well it’s proved to be an elusive reality.

Whatever type of scaled-down event we get in February 2025 will serve more as the appetizer for February 2026.

Eichel is part of a special generation of Team USA players who are waiting for that chance.

“I think it would be an amazing experience for us,” Eichel said. “For a lot of the American guys, most of us have come through the national program and having gone through that program, it makes your pride for your representing your country even greater.

“Just to have that world’s best on the same stage and being able to represent your country and play for something bigger than just an organization and a city; there’s so much pride that goes into it.”


As evidence, Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy’s eyes lit up at the Olympics question.

“Ah, man, I’m still upset about the last one,” he said of 2022. “That one took a while to get over. It gets to a point where it got real, right? You go to training camp and you’re making preparations for that and you’re working toward that. The behind-the-scenes aspect is happening.

“You’re picking sizes for your Ralph Lauren outfit to walk around in the opening ceremonies. … Then you lose it in a matter of seconds, and you’re like, ‘We didn’t even have a chance to talk about it.’ It was just gone.”

So this time, it has to happen.

“That would be incredibly special,” Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes said. “Just some of the guys who would be in the mix, including myself hopefully, I think it would be a special group of people, first of all. Knowing all these guys through the program through the years and world championships and world juniors and such, it would be really cool.”

McAvoy and Quinn Hughes, along with Jack Hughes, Larkin and Eichel, could be in line for a spot on that U.S. team, which might be deeper than ever. It’s also a group that grew up with the Olympics as a dream, inspired by a certain 2004 movie.

“If you ask any hockey player who grew up watching ‘Miracle,’ playing in the NHL was as big a dream as playing in the Olympics,” McAvoy added. “I feel that rings true for a lot of people. That’s still a massive goal of mine. It’s something hopefully I can do in Italy.”

“Growing up with the ‘Miracle’ movie, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that,” Larkin echoed. “And I know I’m not the only U.S.-born player who has watched that countless times.”

Brothers Quinn and Jack Hughes could play together on the U.S. Olympic team. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Filip Forsberg didn’t need to watch a movie. He watched his country win Olympic gold live on TV when Sweden beat rival Finland in Torino in 2006. It inspired him and a host of his generation of Swedish players to one day have their own shot at it. Getting to Italy in 2026 is paramount.


“The COVID in ’22, you understand, it was just never going to be possible,” he said. “The ’18 one was tough to miss. Especially for me personally, those are the two ones probably where I had a chance.

“It would be awesome to be part of it, for sure.”

Connor Bedard was 4 years old in February 2010 when Crosby scored the Golden Goal in Vancouver.

The chance to skate on a team with Crosby and McDavid in 2026 would be unreal.

“I mean, I haven’t played an (NHL) game yet, so I’ve got to prove a lot before I would be selected to a team like that,” he said. “But if that were to happen and I was able to kind of be with those guys, that would be incredible.

“Even if I was a fan watching, it would be pretty fun to see everyone on those teams.”

The 2018 and 2022 Olympic decisions hit hard for a guy like Johnny Gaudreau as time continues to pass by.

“I’m getting older now, I’m 30 … obviously I would love that opportunity to do that,” he said. “The young American kids that are coming into the league now just getting better and better every single day. Same with the Canadians, too. But as I get older, you know, these kids are playing really, really well and are big parts of their teams. So hopefully I’m still playing hard and playing well and get that opportunity because that would be a pretty special opportunity.

“Because it sucks we’ve missed so many good opportunities the last four to six years here. Hopefully it happens.”

It has to. The sport can’t miss another window. That much everyone can agree on.

(Top photo of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel: Lawrence Scott / Getty Images)

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Pierre LeBrun

Pierre LeBrun has been a senior NHL columnist for The Athletic since 2017. He has been an NHL Insider for TSN since 2011 following six years as a panelist on Hockey Night In Canada. He also appears regularly on RDS in Montreal. Pierre previously covered the NHL for ESPN.com and The Canadian Press. Follow Pierre on Twitter @PierreVLeBrun