By Myles Dichter · CBC Sports

McDavid, MacKinnon among stars relishing opportunity to compete internationally

Connor Hellebuyck was part of the electrifying under-23 Team North America squad at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

But having just completed his rookie season and with only 26 games of NHL experience to his name, Hellebuyck didn’t see the ice.

Now eight years later, the American goalie still hasn’t competed in a best-on-best tournament.

“I’ve just been waiting to throw that jersey on. My window’s now, I’m in my prime and I’d love to be part of it,” the Winnipeg Jets goalie said at NHL all-star media day on Thursday.

On Friday, commissioner Gary Bettman announced that NHL players would return to the Olympics in 2026 and 2030. The 2026 Games will be held in Italy, while it is expected that France will be chosen to host the 2030 Games later this year.

The NHL also announced a four-team international tournament for 2025 that will include Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland. The Four Nations Face-off will be held next February in two yet-to-be-named cities in Canada and the United States.

“We know how important international competition is to our players. We know how much they love and want to represent the countries from which they’re from, and we think this ia great stage for the best on best in what obviously we all believe is the best sport,” Bettman said.

NHL players haven’t participated in either of the last two Olympics. Nor has there been a World Cup since that 2016 edition, and even that tournament featured two gimmicky teams, with North America consisting of under-23 players and a Team Europe covering most of the continent except a few countries.

Eager to compete alongside fellow stars

In the meantime, the NHL is reportedly putting together a four-team tournament for 2025 between Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Finland. It’s still not a true best-on-best — not without the Russians or the Czechs — but it’s closer.

Speaking on Thursday, Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid said he wants to compete at the Olympics “extremely badly.”

“I would say that a lot of other guys in my age group would feel the same way,” he said. “I think about the U-23 team, a lot of guys that are here, Nate [MacKinnon], guys like Cale Makar and Jack Eichel and Auston [Matthews, all these guys that haven’t had a chance to represent their country at a best on best. I think it’s something that we’re all hoping to do.”

MacKinnon, the Cole Harbour, N.S., native from the same hometown as Sidney Crosby, echoed the sentiment.

“I’d love to go. I grew up idolizing Team Canadas and we’ve all missed two or three now, so definitely want to get one in, or hopefully a couple before I retire,” he said.

“We have the best player in the league with Connor and hopefully get another one out of Sid. I still think he’s ageless, so I’d love to play with him and trying to win with him would be pretty special as well.”

Hockey Canada president and CEO Katherine Henderson said representing your country at the Olympics is the “pinnacle” of the sport.

“We are excited to begin the process of building teams that include the best Canadian NHL players from across the country for the first time since the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and to surround those athletes with high-quality management, coaching and support staffs that will do everything they can to help our athletes achieve their goal of winning Olympic gold medals,” Henderson said.

Indeed, multiple factors have kept the best men’s players in the world out of the Olympics, from insurance issues between the NHL, NHLPA and IIHF in 2018 to the pandemic in 2022.

On Thursday, Columbus Blue Jackets NHLPA representative Boone Jenner expressed hope of a deal coming together for 2026.

“I know the [Players’ Assocation is] working really hard behind the scenes with the league to find something of a solution there, hopefully get something set in stone,” said Canadian Boone Jenner, the captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the team’s PA representative.

Now one day later, it’s official.

“We know that hockey fans worldwide have long been anticipating the next best-on-best international competition, and now they can finally see some of their favourite players represent their countries and line up together,” said NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh.

“We made it,” IIHF president Luc Tardif added. “That’s two years work and more intense the last six months.”

‘Everybody would be excited’

Minnesota Wild star Kirill Kaprizov is one of just a few NHLers remaining with Olympic experience, having played for the Russian team in 2018 before jumping over to North America.

In Pyeongchang, Kaprizov scored the golden goal in overtime.

“Of course I’d like to play at the Olympics for the Russian team, as any Russian NHL player and any player that plays in Russia. Definitely would be happy to represent the national team,” Kaprizov said.

The Russian flag was excluded from each of the past two Winter Olympics due to sanctions over doping and the invasion of Ukraine.

Drafted in 2015, Kyle Connor is another player, like his Jets teammate Hellebuyck, who’s missed out on the opportunity to play best-on-best internationally.

Though he said he and Hellebuyck don’t talk about it too often — they are NHL players who may not want to jinx their spot on the team two years out, after all — he said he is itching for the opportunity.

“I think everybody would be excited even if it’s a different format with the four teams, whether it’s exhibition tournament or however they’re going to format it, you know there’s gonna be some competition and everybody’s going to want to win that game,” Connor said.

By the time the Olympics come around, most of that original U-23 team will be at least 30, having missed out on a decade of top international competition.

There’s no getting that time back now. But with Friday’s news, at least all those fantasy Team Canada lines are closer to reality.