PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At an average age of 29 they hardly resemble the fresh-faced and feisty amateurs who produced the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid in 1980. The US Olympic men’s hockey team that will suit up here next week has played thousands of professional games for dozens of teams. But its members have one thing in common with Mike Eruzione and his band of brothers. Except for captain Brian Gionta, none has played in an Olympics.
Had the National Hockey League allowed its players to participate in these Games, as it had for the previous five quadrennia, this American squad would still be with its clubs and colleges. “I’m happy to get this opportunity now,” said Boston University forward Jordan Greenway. “Obviously, I didn’t think it was going to come this soon.”
Once it became clear that the NHL was going to keep its players home, the various national federations scoured their player pools for 25 candidates who would be both capable and available. The Canadians, who’ll be gunning for their fourth gold medal since 2002, assembled their roster from clubs in nine countries. “I don’t think we can sit here today and say we missed anybody,” said general manager Sean Burke.
Team Canada’s members have played more than 5,500 games in the NHL, most notably former Bruin Chris Kelly (833), Derek Roy (738), Rene Bourque (725), and Maxim Lapierre (614). Most have come to the end of their North American shelf life. Others such as Eric O’Dell, Justin Peters, and Chay Genoway never quite had one.
“All of our players at somewhere along the line they’ve been told no,” mused coach Willie Desjardins. “They’re not going to get a chance to continue their NHL career or even start it in some way. A lot like other Canadians they’ve managed to battle it and fight back. They’ve stuck with it, they won’t give up . . . that’s what our team is about. It’s about guys who have received a no but found a way to make a yes.”
The biggest beneficiary of the NHL’s absence is Russia, which boasts 10 veterans from that league, most significantly captain Pavel Datsyuk, who won two Stanley Cups with Detroit, and Ilya Kovalchuk, who spent a dozen seasons with Atlanta and New Jersey. Their roster also includes five other players who’ve won world championships, such as Sergei Mozyakin and Sergei Shirokov.
“If you look at the Russian roster they have the biggest names of players that have played internationally and in the NHL and are stars,” observed US coach Tony Granato, who played on the 1988 squad. “So you look at Datsyuk as being the big guy, but there’s Kovalchuk and plenty of other guys there that are world-class superstars.”
For Russia, which hasn’t won the gold medal since 1992 (as the Unified Team) or made the podium since 2002, these Games will be a chance at redemption after the squad finished fifth on its home ice in Sochi four years ago, losing to Finland in the quarterfinals.
But Vladislav Tretiak, the federation president who tended goal for the Soviet Union champions at three Games, isn’t expecting a walkover. “Many believe that the tournament will be a pleasure trip for us,” he said. “According to my own experience, though, there are no weak rivals at tournaments of that status. We cannot be described as indisputable favorites.”
The Russians finished third at last year’s world championships, losing to the Canadians by two goals in the semifinals. The Swedes, who come in as global titlists, will suit up five members of that team as well as 13 former NHLers.
The Americans have 15 players with NHL experience, most notably Gionta, who captained both the Canadiens and Sabres. The overwhelming majority of them now play in Europe, most of them in the Russia-based Kontinental League or in Switzerland. Three, including former Bruins forward Chris Bourque, are AHLers and four are collegians, including Harvard forward Ryan Donato, whose father, Ted, played on the 1992 team.
More than 20 previously have played on US national squads, which was a major consideration when the roster was assembled. “We wanted guys that understood what putting the sweater over your head meant,” said Granato.
USA Hockey also wanted players familiar with performing for American teams that are put together on the fly with minimal practice time for tournaments such as the world championships each spring. “Every world championship we go to, the team is constructed at the last minute,” said Granato. “You put the guys together, you give them a game plan, and you get out there and play and represent your country. We’ll be doing the same thing this year.”
Most of the squad played together in November at the Deutschland Cup in Germany, which gave the players a head start on bonding and developing a team identity. “You need to find ways to come together as a team quicker,” said Gionta, whose teammates will face Slovenia, Slovakia, and Russia within four days. “You don’t have the luxury of being together for nine months of the year. You have to accelerate that process. You want everyone pulling in the same direction.”
The last time the US sent a non-NHL team to the Games, in 1994, the Americans finished a worst-ever eighth, losing 6-1 to the Finns in the quarterfinals and dropping their final two matches. “It was a dream that ended up a nightmare,” said defenseman Ted Crowley.
The US has fared markedly better since then, winning silvers in 2002 and 2010, but even an all-NHL team wasn’t enough to guarantee a podium finish as the Americans finished sixth in 1998, eighth in 2006, and fourth in 2014, losing the bronze-medal match to Finland by five goals.
In 1980, the “Boys of Winter” beat the Finns for the gold medal. Granato was a teenager then and except for captain Mark Johnson he hadn’t heard of anyone on the US team. “The chance for guys like Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig to step forward on the Olympic stage and all of a sudden become international stars and certainly heroes for American hockey was a sensational story,” he said.
The NHL may well be back in Beijing four years from now since the league considers China a desirable market. “Maybe there are some other opportunities in China that aren’t in South Korea,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in December. “We will see.”
These Games are for the understudies, the once-weres or not-yets, the Chad Kolariks and Will Borgens and Ryan Zapolskis who are the no-name throwbacks to Lake Placid. “It’s a great opportunity for our whole team to do something like that,” said Zapolski, the 31-year-old Mercyhurst product who tends goal for the Finnish club Jokerit and likely will be the US starter. “If we’re successful and if we can play well then people are going to know who we are.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.