The Great Unknown

The U.S. Is Banking On A Cast Of Collegians And European League Castoffs To Bring Home The Gold

 

 

When Brian Gionta made his Olympic debut in 2006, he was a rising young NHL star playing alongside members of the greatest generation of American players on the downside of their Hall of Fame careers.

Now a dozen years later, the Rochester, N.Y., native is stepping out of semi-retirement to lead a collection of collegians, minor leaguers and European league exiles into PyeongChang, South Korea for one last kick at the Olympic can.

When the National Hockey League made the decision to not allow its players to participate in the Olympics for the first time since 1994, federations like USA Hockey were forced to reach deep into their player pool to create a roster consisting of players unknown to all but the most rabid hockey fans.

But as one Olympic door closed on what experts believed would have been the most talented U.S. team ever assembled, it created an opportunity for another group of American athletes to realize a dream long since left for dead.

"I loved the NHL players, but there's something fresh about the format this time," said U.S. Head Coach Tony Granato, who played in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. "We're going to take advantage of that. We have to see how good we are."

And that is very good news indeed for players who long ago put their Olympic dreams to bed.

"I think everyone can relate with the Olympics and the magnitude of the Olympics. The world stops to watch the Olympic Games. And to be able to be at that level representing your country, it's a dream come true," said Gionta, who was the top scorer for the U.S. in Torino, Italy.

"I've been very fortunate throughout my career to be able to do that many times, but at no time does it lessen the effect of it. When you walk out of that tunnel with that jersey on, you still have that same feeling you had as a kid. And I'm loving the opportunity to be able to do it again, especially at my age."

Gionta isn't the only member of the U.S. squad with NHL experience. In total, 15 on the 23-man roster have previously played in the show, including forwards Bobby Butler, John McCarthy and Jim Slater along defensemen James Wisniewski, Bobby Sanguinetti and Matt Gilroy. 

The bulk of the roster features players who have found a home in European professional leagues, including Mark Arcobello who leads the Swiss League in scoring, and Kontinental Hockey League standouts Brian O'Neill and Ryan Stoa. Ryan Zapolski, who also plays in the KHL, was the only goalie named to the team on Jan. 1.

Rounding out the roster are four collegiate players including Harvard University's Ryan Donato, Troy Terry of the University of Denver, Jordan Greenway from Boston University and St. Cloud State University defenseman Will Borgen. Terry and Greenway helped the U.S. National Junior Team win gold at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"Obviously, the selection process has been a battle for us with all the players we have available to us," said Granato, who balanced his time between coaching the University of Wisconsin Badgers and adding his input on this Olympic roster.  "We're really happy with the players that we announced. I think we've put together an outstanding group of players that will represent us well come February and give us a great chance to do really well and compete for a medal."

One thing that stands out on the U.S. roster is the lack of size, especially up front, with the average size hovering around 5-foot-9. Johannson said the speed and shiftiness of the team's forwards should suit them well, particularly on the larger Olympic ice surface where many of these players feel at home.

"I think we have enough speed to back a team off and now we're going to have enough size and a little bit of grit to push back, if you will, because you realize that the other teams are going to come at us as well," Johannson said.  "We're happy with where the mix is right now and we just need to stay healthy for six weeks and just get prepared to play our best hockey in February."

With players coming from various leagues around the world, the first challenge will be to get everyone on the same page quickly before the puck drops on Feb. 14 against Slovenia.

"If all goes as planned, we'll have four full practices to get ready, which in all honesty is quite a bit of practice time. In today's pro game it's rare that you get four days to practice so I think that will be great for our team," said Johannson, a two-time Olympian who has helped assemble the past four U.S. squads.

And having veterans like Gionta, Slater and Wisniewski could pay huge dividends in helping the team come together quickly, which is essential in a condensed tournament.

"It's about gaining that chemistry with the guys early on that will carry us through towards the end," said Gionta, who played in 1,006 NHL games and won a Stanley Cup in 2003. "You don't have the luxury of going throughout the season, the ups and downs of the season and finding out who people are, and you have to fast track that whole process."

Granato and his coaching staff, which includes U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame players Scott Young and Chris Chelios, are familiar with many of these players having coached 15 of them at the 2017 Deutschland Cup in Augsburg, Germany. While the U.S. lost all three of its games, the competition provided Granato and his staff with valuable insight into how this team will be able to compete and succeed on the Olympic stage.

"It was great from an evaluation standpoint for all of us," Granato said. "I liked a lot of the things we saw. I think there was a lot of things to be excited about."

It may take a little longer for hockey fans to be excited about a team that doesn't feature household names like those currently playing, and starring, in the NHL. That's to be expected after two decades of star-studded hockey played on the game's grandest stage.

But it wasn't that long ago that a team of Americans with names like Eruzione, Pavelich, Craig and Broten were also relative unknowns. And we all know how that turned out. 

 

Issue: 
2018-02

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