The Quest is No Less Recognizable Even if Team USA Is Not

They’re still playing hockey at the Winter Olympics, but without NHL players. Which means the guys doing the playing are relative nobodies. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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It won’t come down to Sidney Crosby vs. Ryan Miller in overtime this time.

There won’t be an epic shootout between Sergei Bobrovsky and T.J. Oshie, as there had been in Sochi.

They’re still playing hockey at the Winter Olympics, but without NHL players.

Which means the guys doing the playing are relative nobodies.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Team USA head coach Tony Granato, in a conference call in advance of the initial Olympic puck drop, recalled another bunch of nobodies who, in February of 1980, turned out to be on their way to hockey immortality.

“I didn’t know who Jim Craig was,” Granato admitted. “Or Jack O’Callahan, I had no idea. Kenny Morrow, I had no idea.

“And within two days I was doing a lot of research to figure out who all these guys were and within two weeks they were obviously all my heroes.”

The transition from zero to hero for the members of this year’s edition of Team USA got off to a frustrating start via a 3-2 overtime loss to Slovenia today.

But that doesn’t make the quest for gold any less compelling.

Like Granato in 1980, I had never heard of some of these players.

But doing the research proved to be intriguing.

For example:

  • Fifteen of the 23 U.S. players have played a combined 3,083 games in the NHL, although the threesome of Brian Gionta (1,006), Jim Slater (584) and James Wisniewski (552) accounts for more than two-thirds of that total.
     
  • Goaltender Ryan Zapolski is from Erie, and played his college hockey just up I-79 at Mercyhurst. Zapolski is one of four Pennsylvanians on the roster, along with Ryan Gunderson (Bensalem), Brian O’Neill (Yardley) and Chad Kolarik (Abington; he wound up attending Northgate High School after a family move). Only Massachusetts (five players) has a greater representation (New York also has four).
     
  • Ryan Stoa is from Minnesota and was an All-American for the Gophers, but he’s a Penguins fan. And his sister Maria played collegiately at Robert Morris (2007-11).
     
  • Four of Team USA’s players are still playing in college (Will Borgen, St. Cloud State; Ryan Donato, Harvard; Jordan Greenway, Boston University; and Troy Terry, Denver).
     
  • Without doing your homework, you probably remember Granato was an assistant coach with the Penguins under Dan Bylsma, and that Scott Young, an assistant to Granato with the Olympic team, played for the Penguins’ 1991 Stanley Cup champions.

You possibly remember Marc Arcobello, Chris Bourque and Noah Welch once played –– briefly –– for the Pens.

You might even remember the Penguins once traded for Kolarik (Ray Shero sent Benn Ferriero to the Rangers in exchange in January of 2013).

But did you know that Garrett Roe likes Eminem for his pump-up music? Or that David Leggio is a big fan of Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam?

A few of the U.S. Olympians are more obviously accomplished.

Gionta won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2002-03 and was a captain in Buffalo and Montreal.

Matt Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award (college hockey’s Heisman Trophy) and a national championship at Boston University in 2008-09.

And Bourque is at least known for being Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque’s son (if not for collecting three assists in 20 games with the Pens in 2009-10).

But for the most part this is a collection of hockey lifers still playing For Love of the Game (Slater’s favorite movie) wherever someone will let them continue to play (in Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Czech Republic or with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears).

They’re also playing for the love of their country in the ultimate tournament in which the name on the front of the jersey means more than the name on the back.

Does it get any better than that?

Next up for Team USA is a meeting with Slovakia on Friday.

Then comes a Saturday morning showdown with Russia (known in these Games as Olympic Athletes from Russia Minus Alex Ovechkin) at 7:10 a.m. (ET).

Oshie won’t be playing.

Neither will Mike Eruzione.

I’ve already got my alarm set, anyway.
 

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section