It was a pleasant but unremarkable summer night. Troy Terry was hanging with some of his college teammates. His phone rang. It was Jim Johannson from USA Hockey, and the night was about to become a bit more remarkable: The 19-year-old NCAA player was told he was under consideration for the 2018 Olympic men’s ice hockey team.
“Before that phone call, I didn’t even know it was a possibility. It was pretty crazy,” Terry, now a burgeoning star with the Anaheim Ducks, told ESPN this week. “It really was one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do.”
The NHL announced in April 2017 that it was opting out of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Not only did the International Olympic Committee not sweeten the pot for the league with concessions on sponsorship and branding, it actually soured that pot by reducing funding for NHL players after the 2014 Sochi Games.
The owners didn’t want to go, and the NHLPA wasn’t going to allow the NHL to use 2018 Olympic participation as a collective bargaining agreement extension carrot. All of this combined with apathy toward South Korea as a market led to the first men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament without NHL players since 1994.
With that, USA Hockey shifted to Plan B and started making calls to NCAA players like Terry, to professionals playing overseas and to veteran NHL free agents like Brian Gionta, whom Johansson — who died in January 2018, three weeks before the Olympics — recruited before the 39-year-old signed for his final NHL season.
They started calling coaches, too. Like Tony Granato, head coach at the University of Wisconsin and suddenly a Team USA Olympic coach.
“We were looking for players that were going to be really excited about representing their country. Not as a ‘second chance,'” said Granato.
The coaches and players from that 2018 men’s Olympic hockey team not only understand what it’s like to represent one’s county, but they understand what it’s like to do so after the NHL bails on a “best on best” tournament. Just like it did for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, indicating that it needs the February Olympic break to reschedule games postponed during the ongoing COVID-19 wave.
What advice to the U.S. Olympians of 2018 have for the Olympians of 2022? I asked Terry, Gionta, Granato and Seattle Kraken forward Ryan Donato about their Olympic journey to Pyeongchang — which ended with a quarterfinal shootout loss to Czech Republic — and what needs to happen for the boys in Beijing to medal.
Remember that you belong there
Granato remembers the first news conference that the team had in South Korea. A reporter asked a question that Granato felt was “very derogatory” toward his players, who were lined up on stage, as the questioner called them “rejects.”
The coach spoke up: “We’ve got 25 guys here. They represent the United States, and they play the right way. They deserve to be here.”
I remember some fans calling these players “scabs” back in 2018, which was ridiculous. The NHL bailed. They got the call to represent their nation, and answered it as they should have.
Gionta had been in the league 17 years before the South Korea Games. He understood the factors behind the NHL’s decision not to allow the players to participate.
“It’s way different than any typical labor dispute. Some players are in favor, some aren’t and the greater business of the industry isn’t allowing them to go now. So you don’t even question whether it’s the right thing to do. There’s none of that,” he said.
For Donato, who was playing at Harvard at the time, the tournament itself was validation enough. “At the end of the day, you’re playing on the biggest stage in the world. It didn’t feel any smaller because the NHL guys weren’t there,” he said. “For me, coming from college, it felt like anything bigger than college felt like the center of the world.”
Build chemistry remotely
Team building comes in different shapes and forms. For the 2018 Olympic team, it took the form of a rather large text chain.
“We talked about everything from how our seasons were going to just really stupid s—,” Gionta said, laughing. “We just tried to get more personal with guys. That included talking about our families, including where they were staying [in South Korea].”
The 2018 roster was blessed with someone like Gionta, an NHL mainstay who became a natural leader. Granato said the veterans on the 2022 roster have to step up and help build chemistry before the Games.
“We talked to all the guys that we thought would be leaders and threw a lot on them. We told them that a lot of you don’t know each other. When we landed in South Korea, there was a lot of introductions being made, because they were coming from all different directions. But we felt like we knew each other, because we had spent so much time talking,” he said.
The players said coaching staff did a lot of prep work remotely. Ron Rolston, as assistant coach with the 2018 team, set up a virtual meeting room for the players to access via computer. They were told line combinations, could watch videos of how the coaches wanted them to play and all the information they felt the players needed before going to South Korea.
But while all of this distanced chemistry building can be beneficial, the real chemistry tests aren’t held until everyone arrives at the Olympics.
“Honestly, I think the text thread was good for getting to know everybody and where they are and where they’re from. But you don’t really get a feel for all the guys until you’re there,” said Donato. “And as hockey players, we meshed pretty quickly.”
Bridge the age gap
The 2018 team had four NCAA players. The 2022 team in Beijing looks to have double that total.
Granato said the college programs are given a long lead time before their players are asked to join the Olympic team, and then it’s only a couple of weekends of time missed. “We didn’t call them and surprise them and say, ‘Hey, we’re taking your players,'” said Granato, who also took leave from Wisconsin for the Olympics.
Rather than it being a disruption, the programs see it as an honor. “The kids are good enough to be on an Olympic team? Then you’ve got a heck of a kid in your program, and you’ve done a heck of a job getting them ready,” said Granato.
Gionta said it’s contingent on the veteran players to support the newbies. “It’s a huge step up from what they’re used to. They were new, fresh and just inexperienced in the pro style game,” he said.
But having college players on the roster was ultimately invigorating.
“It kept me youthful,” said Gionta, who still keeps in touch with Donato and Terry. “We didn’t have much in common at the time: I had a wife and three kids, they were talking about their girlfriends and schoolwork, you know? But it was all great stuff.”
Terry, who had been playing at the University of Denver, said the other NCAA players were the only ones he knew on the roster.
“We had guys playing in every league overseas. We had Brian Gionta, who had an amazing NHL career. Everyone’s story was so different,” said Terry. “It was challenging to find some chemistry in a quick tournament like that. Especially on Olympic ice.”
About that Olympic ice
The good news for some of the Americans this year: The IIHF reports that the Beijing rinks are going to be around NHL standard-sized — 60 by 26 meters — rather than played on the larger “international” sheets used in non-North American leagues.
“I really think it’s more of a factor than people realize,” said Terry. “A lot of these European teams have grown up playing on this ice. So you’ll see these teams like Sweden, and they’re so good at controlling the puck and knowing they have more time. When you play over here on the smaller ice, it always feels like someone’s right on top of you. When you play on the larger ice, you have more time than you realize.”
No matter the size of the ice, getting everyone who plays on different-sized sheets around the world on the same page is a challenge.
“You’ve got guys from all over the place. The AHL game, the college game, they’re way different from the European pro game,” Gionta said. “When we got over there, it was such a condensed schedule that we didn’t get much time as a group.”
Enjoy life in the Village
Ryan Donato’s best advice for living in the Olympic Village?
“Pack a couple of extra bags of snacks from home,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot of good food there. A wide variety. You have to be willing to explore what you like. But it’s not the same as having easy access to everything.”
Terry said that enjoying life in the Olympic Village is a key to the overall experience, although he acknowledged things will be different in Beijing due to the intense COVID-19 testing and distancing restrictions.
“The village was awesome. I feel like you hear all about it, but it’s so cool. There are so many amazing athletes in all sports. Just getting to be around them, outside of hockey,” Terry said.
He shared a room with four other players, and he was the only college-aged player. “One of the guys brought a Nintendo Switch and we would just play Mario Kart,” said Terry. “It’s tough to beat. So that was fun.”
Another perk of Olympic life: the swag. “I remember coming to my room and having a big back of Polo and Nike stuff in there. There’s all kinds of cool stuff that they give you,” Terry said.
Understand what you’re up against
When the NHL opted out of the 2018 Olympics, the landscape dramatically shifted as far as who the favorites for medals would become.
“We knew Russia was going to be good. Or whatever they were called,” said Gionta, of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, who won gold. “The Finns are always strong. Sweden’s always strong. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the guys in the NHL, because it was still guys that played in the NHL. You knew that the rosters were going to be good. It was not going to be a cakewalk, at all.”
For Terry, there were still well-known former NHL players in the tournament that left some of the college-aged players in awe.
“Be confident. It took me a little while to figure that out, that I’m a good player. It what a lot of players go through at these events,” Terry said.
Don’t worry about back home
The Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament is usually a marquee event. But with the NHL out of the tournament and the games being played in the wee hours for most of the country, the 2018 tournament was way off the cultural radar. The same could happen in 2022.
“Listen, you knew it was going to take a dip from the NHL guys. The NHL was going on at the time. With the time change, it was out of sight, out of mind,” said Gionta. “But we weren’t really worried about that. We knew our family and friends were tuning in. You weren’t worried about what kind of impact we were making.”
But when you’re in the tournament, you have no concept of how it’s playing back in the states. Frankly, even with the time difference, you never know who is watching.
After the U.S. lost in a shootout to be eliminated, it was after 4 a.m. back on the East Coast. As Granato made his way to the Team USA locker room, he noticed his phone was ringing.
It was Wayne Gretzky.
“He had stayed awake and watched the game. He just said how proud he was of the way our team played. How he didn’t know some of the players before the Olympics, but that they were fun to watch. And how crappy the shootout is [in the Olympics],” said Granato. “I had him text me what he said so I could show the players. Because they deserved to know, and to walk out of there with a lot of pride in what they accomplished.”
Remember, you can win this
Granato hadn’t been able to connect with new Team USA coach David Quinn as of Wednesday morning. But when he does, he plans on relaying the message that Johansson gave him in 2018.
“You can go there and you can win that tournament. It’s that wide open,” he said. “Germany was within a minute from winning a gold medal. Who would have thought that? All the teams are facing their own challenges this year, just like they did when we went. All the teams expected the NHL to be there this time, so everyone is making their adjustments. They’re all scrambling to figure out what to do.”
So, we don’t get the NHL in the Beijing Games. We don’t get “best on best.” We don’t get to see Connor McDavid skate with Sidney Crosby for Canada or Auston Matthews suit up for the Americans or Alex Ovechkin try to win his first gold medal for Russia.
But we do get Olympic hockey, and that means something. Especially when there’s a chance for the U.S. to medal for the first time since 2010 and to try to win gold for the first time since the Miracle on Ice in 1980 — if the team plays hard and follows the lessons of the 2018 team.
“The work we did leading up to that tournament was going to give us the best chance to win, along with having players who wanted to wear that U.S.A. sweater and be their best for two weeks,” Granato said.
Or as Donato puts it: “Enjoy every moment of it. It’s going to be one of the greatest moments of your career. And don’t forget to have fun.”
Three things about NHL officiating
1. Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness was fined $25,000, or $12,500 per angry stick swing, after Miro Heiskanen was dragged down by Brayden Schenn behind the Dallas net. That set up not only a game-tying St. Louis Blues goal with 47 seconds left in regulation but paved the way for Heiskanen to take a slashing penalty that led to another Blues power play that led to the winning goal by Jordan Kyrou with 27 seconds left before overtime.
The fine is fine. You criticize or show up the officials, you pay the piper. Tale as old as time. You know what else is: That the home team, trailing by a goal with its net empty, will be allowed all sorts of delicate and devious obstruction to tie the game and pop the crowd.
Entering Wednesday, home teams were penalized 10 times when they had their goalie pulled for an extra attacker. That compares to 20 times for road teams in the same situation. So a road team is twice as likely to get a penalty with its goalie pulled than a home team. But wait, there’s more: According to ESPN Stats & Information research, home teams have earned 1,477 penalty minutes in the third period, while road teams have earned 1,643 in the third, through 555 games.
This is an entrenched part of Universal Hockey Theory. We know when penalties will be called and when they will not. So while it was absolutely valid for Rick Bowness to treat the visitors bench like a pinata … he has been coaching for five decades. He literally knows the score here.
2. The 3-on-3 overtime is no place for penalties, but I guess if you are going to enforce a rule it should be too many men on the ice, for then it would not be 3-on-3.
However, the epic botch that happened in the Colorado Avalanche‘s loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night cost the Avs a point against a division rival. It was a terrible call, and this is a great breakdown of the play:
— AltitudeTV (@AltitudeTV) January 12, 2022
Again, this is embarrassing for the NHL officials, but the Avalanche made the choice to not embarrass them. Coach Jared Bednar’s reaction: “We’re frustrated. I still haven’t seen the too many men, and I’ve already looked at the video.” Defenseman Cale Makar‘s reaction: “I was right there and I thought Nate was off the ice. Overall, it didn’t look like it was too many men to me. It’s a tough call to make in OT. But it is what it is.”
WHOA BOYS! CALM DOWN OVER THERE! YOU’RE GOING TO BURN THE PLACE DOWN WITH THE FIRE YOU’RE SPITTING!
I’ve heard from some Avalanche fans asking why the missed call wasn’t a bigger deal. Well, actions need reactions. When their coach and star defenseman react to a blown call with the ire of someone who didn’t get enough ketchup packets at a drive-thru window, it doesn’t become a thing. Unfortunately, that’s the NHL: You rarely see anyone go rip city on the officials before the postseason. Especially when the starting fee for that kind of diatribe is $25,000.
3. Speaking of officiating, I found this stat to be interesting. The Pittsburgh Penguins have the league’s top penalty kill (90.7%), yet they’re 31st in short-handed ice time per game (4:09). Logic would dictate that a strong penalty kill means more time short-handed, because power plays are going the full two minutes. Two seasons ago, the San Jose Sharks had the best penalty kill (85.7%) and the third-most time spent short-handed on average (5:33) per game. This season, the Carolina Hurricanes are right behind the Penguins (91.7%) and spend the most time short-handed (6:33) of any team in the league.
The trick for Pittsburgh: They’re 30th in times short-handed per game (2.46). So they rarely take penalties; and when they do, they kill them off. Sounds like a recipe for success. Mike Sullivan: pretty good coach!
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Hockey Twitter
The Kodak Black incident at the Florida Panthers game on Tuesday turned out to be nothing more than a salacious dance performed next to the executive suite — Roberto Luongo, bless your heart — but it did offer Hockey Twitter the chance to build a comedy period that reached the heavens. Stick taps to Daniel Wagner, Adam Herman, James Duthie and Pete Blackburn for their efforts, but as usual Down Goes Brown wins the gold.
Losers: NHL social media
If you wanted to see “celebrity attends a hockey game” tweets deleted at the speed of light, look no further than Tuesday night. That’s when the NHL and the Florida Panthers social media feeds went from “Hey, noted rapper Kodak Black is at the game against the Vancouver Canucks!” to “We disavow any knowledge of Kodak Black and his alleged affinity for hockey … in fact, we can no longer confirm nor deny the existence of a game on Tuesday night or that the game ever occurred.”
Winner: Jack Eichel
You had to be happy to see the star center looking healthy in his first skate with the Vegas Golden Knights. (Well, at least if you’re outside of Buffalo.) Hearing how smoothly his rehab has gone is encouraging, and hopefully that extends into his return to play. Now the Golden Knights must just find a way to squeeze him under that salary cap.
Loser: U.S. hockey fans
Eichel decided to break some hearts in his news conference by teasing the idea that he could have played for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics, thereby fulfilling our six-year-in-the-making dream of Auston Matthews and Eichel up the gut at center. Sigh.
Winner: Evander Kane
The NHL is a truly special place in which a player who allegedly skirted COVID-19 rules twice in three months — to the detriment of his team and the termination of his contract, and following NHL investigations into accusations of game fixing and domestic violence — can have every Stanley Cup contender reaching out to his agent to inquire about his services, because he’s a proven goal-scorer.
Loser: Connor McDavid
“If fans don’t like it, or the media doesn’t like it, or whatever… it is what it is.”
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) January 12, 2022
McDavid’s not the GM of the Edmonton Oilers. That’s Ken Holland, who ultimately makes the decision whether Evander Kane should be in their locker room. But McDavid is the captain of the Oilers. He should acknowledge a potential new player’s responsibility to respect the room and best represent the franchise. These weren’t “on the ice” problems for Kane. This “we’ll literally take anyone” attitude from McDavid just drenches a desperate situation in more desperation.
Winner: Hockey Diversity Alliance
The HDA’s new sponsorship deal with Budweiser Canada and the #TapeOutHate campaign are an unmitigated success. Their anti-racism stick tape is flying out of stock. The video they created for the campaign went viral. Each sale of the tape raises funds for the Alliance. So after the NHL denied funding for the organization — and frankly, their ask was too high — the HDA raised its own funds by partnering with one of the NHL’s most notable “beverage partners.” Which is a nice workaround.
Loser: More COVID-19 chaos
The KHL had to shut down for a bit due to a COVID-19 surge, which could have an impact on Olympic rosters. Toronto lost the PHF All-Star Showcase due to COVID-19 restrictions, as it shifted to Buffalo. We’re up to 127 postponed games in the NHL season. Just a stunning, if not surprising, last month.
Winner: Remembering Brian Blessing
Hockey in the Valley lost a good friend with the passing of Vegas Hockey Hotline host Brian Blessing.
Brian was a supporter of the Golden Knights since the beginning, and our thoughts are with his family and friends. #VegasBorn
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) January 10, 2022
The tributes were pouring in from Buffalo to Las Vegas after the death of Blessing at age 64. He was an opinionated fan favorite with the Sabres, having once inspired Doug Gilmour to lament not having punched him out for his analysis. (Badge of honor, that.) In Vegas, he offered a critical platform for a growing fan base, and his interviews with Golden Knights owner Bill Foley were newsworthy and extraordinary. RIP to a real one.
From your friends at ESPN
I had the NHL Power Rankings this week and used it as an opportunity to match all 32 teams with the Walt Disney World attractions that best define them.