Connor McDavid playing alongside Sidney Crosby. Auston Matthews leading a young group of talented Americans.
Alex Ovechkin and Russia's mercurial roster trying to finally get over the hump. Canada's quest for three straight gold medals — and perhaps a fourth.
The NHL skipped the 2018 Olympics in South Korea for business reasons, tired of the mid-season hole in its schedule. The league was then forced to back out of Beijing 2022 this week because of massive COVID-19 disruptions that led to a string of postponements.
Hockey's best have committed to going to the 2026 Games, but by the time that event opens in Italy, it will have been 12 years since NHLers skated on Olympic ice.
McDavid will have just turned 29 years old, while Matthews will be 28. Crosby and Ovechkin — 38 and 40, respectively, by the time 2026 rolls around — might be retired.
The last best-on-best tournament for this generation of stars was the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. But McDavid and Matthews were on the gimmicky under-23 North American squad, while players from a handful of European countries were grouped together to round out and balance the eight-team field.
Before the NHL first went to the Olympics in 1998 to begin a streak of five straight appearances, hockey fans at least had Canada Cups and World Cups to whet their appetite for elite international competition.
With no NHLers going to Beijing and no concrete plans for a World Cup resurrection, The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the lost storylines from two Olympic Games missed:
MCDAVID AND CROSBY
The superstars have only played together once for Canada, and that was at the 2015 world championships in the Czech Republic.
Crosby, of course, scored the golden goal in overtime against the U.S at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and then captained his country to another podium-topping finish four years later in Sochi, Russia, to complement a long list of NHL honours with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
McDavid, meanwhile, already has two Hart Trophy wins as a league MVP and has captured the Art Ross Trophy on three occasions as its top scorer with the Edmonton Oilers.
The duo was primed to lead Canada in both South Korea and China.
Would they have played on the same line? What would the Canadian power play have looked like when sprinkling in Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar?
MATTHEWS LEADING THE U.S.
Auston Matthews topped the NHL with 41 goals in 52 games last season, and was primed to headline a dynamic U.S. roster in Beijing.
The Toronto Maple Leafs sniper might have played on a line with veteran Patrick Kane at both the 2018 and 2022 Games, and would have hit the ice this time around with a group featuring fellow youngsters like Kyle Connor, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat, Adam Fox and Charlie McAvoy. Jack Eichel might have also been in the mix as he recovers from neck surgery.
The Americans haven't won Olympic gold since the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. They claimed silver in 2002 and 2010 with NHLers after losing to Canada in both finals.
This iteration of the U.S. program might have had what it takes to unseat the Canadians.
COULD RUSSIA GET ITS ACT TOGETHER?
The Russian team won non-NHL Olympic gold in 2018 with a roster of players from its domestic Kontinental Hockey League that included Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
But the country's stars plying their trade in North America haven't medalled since winning silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002.
Russia had high hopes as tournament hosts in 2014, but lost to Finland in the quarterfinals.
Barring injury, they would have had the best goalie of the tournament in China with Andrei Vasilevskiy, and a forward group led by Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin, Artemi Panarin, Kirill Kaprizov and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Defence might have been a little thin to get over the hump, but in a single-elimination tournament and with a hot netminder, anything's possible.
Canada and the U.S. are together in Group A in Beijing along with Germany and China.
There would have been a clear advantage for the North Americans, but a German outfit led by Leon Draisaitl, Tim Stutzle and Moritz Seider wouldn't be an easy out.
Germany surprised Canada's non-NHLers in the 2018 Olympic semis before falling to the Russians for gold, and is a program that continues to be on the rise.
"We just want to work hard and play for ourselves," Stutzle said before the start of the NHL season about being in a group with Canada and the U.S. "We want to set a good note for German hockey."
That will have to wait until at least 2026.
While players like Crosby and Ovechkin have enjoyed Olympic opportunities, and McDavid and Matthews still have runway remaining, a number of stars might never get the chance.
Steven Stamkos was passed over by Canada in 2010 despite being on the way to a 51-goal season before breaking his leg ahead of Sochi.
Victor Hedman, his teammate with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2018 Norris Trophy winner, didn't get the call in 2014.
Brad Marchand has developed into an NHL stud, but only played at 2016 World Cup for Canada.
And then there's John Tavares, who injured his knee in 2014 at his only Olympics.
Stamkos, Hedman and Tavares are all 31, while Marchand is 33. Each might not get another crack.
CANADIAN ROSTER DEBATE
Would Drew Doughty have made Canada's blue line? What about Andrew Mangiapane as a darkhorse up front?
How would Canadian head coach Jon Cooper have organized his forward group and dealt with his country's uncertain goaltending situation? Would he have let the roster's skill run wild, unlike Mike Babcock in 2014.
Would Tavares and Stamkos have received the call? Could Canada have won a third straight gold in 2018, and perhaps a fourth in Beijing?
Just some of the Olympic questions without answers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press