When the National Hockey League closed the door on allowing its players to compete at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, it opened the door for others like John McCarthy to live out their Olympic dreams.
The absence of NHL players paved the way for the 31-year-old San Jose Barracuda forward to represent the United States next month in PyeongChang, South Korea. It is a great opportunity both for him and the U.S. National Team, who will be striving for their third Olympic gold medal and first since 1980.
Without established NHL players in the tournament, it’s hard to say which country’s newly-assembled roster will have the edge. It could be wide open for gold.
McCarthy has captained the San Jose Barracuda since the start of the 2016-17 season
“It opens the door for a lot of countries, as opposed to when the NHL guys played,” McCarthy said. “A lot of countries have a shot to win.”
The lack of NHL players shouldn’t necessarily mean a decline in the caliber of play, according to McCarthy: “It’s going to be a good tournament,” he said. “There’s still going to be a lot of skill and a lot of speed. We have a lot of talent and a lot of speed. I’m excited to see what we do.”
This year’s U.S. squad was formed form a wide pool of players. There are minor leaguers like McCarthy, players who play professionally abroad and college players who have been assembled to do what no U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team ever has: Win a gold medal on foreign soil. Team USA won its only golds at Squaw Valley, California in 1960 and most famously in Lake Placid, New York in 1980. The U.S. men haven’t earned a medal of any kind outside of North America since 1972, when they took silver in Sapporo, Japan. Since then, the U.S. does have two more silvers on the continent: Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010.
When Team USA plays its first game of the Olympic tournament against Slovenia on Feb. 14, it will be the first time that this exact team will take the ice together, but much of the team was on the roster for the Deutschland Cup in November. McCarthy was not, but he knows at least some of his teammates in other ways. Defenseman Matt Gilroy, for instance, was his college roommate at Boston University, and he knows forwards Chris Bourque and Bobby Butler from his time growing up in the Boston area.
The players won’t practice together until they assemble in South Korea a few days before the Olympic opening ceremony, but McCarthy expects the team to gel quickly.
“Everybody’s been given film clips and things to do on their own so that we come together, we can hit the ground running,” he said. “We’ll all know the system, which will definitely help.”
McCarthy has spent most of his nine-year pro career in the San Jose Sharks’ organization. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder is currently the captain of the Barracuda, the Sharks’ American Hockey League affiliate. He has had occasional stints with the big club, most extensively 37 games in 2010-11.
McCarthy has never been the most prolific scorer — as of this writing, he had three goals and three assists in 88 career NHL games, and 108 goals and 141 assists in 473 AHL games. He’s spent most of his career doing the less glamorous but still essential things, such as winning faceoffs and blocking shots, that are necessary for hockey teams to win.
He’ll be counted on to do those things in PyeongChang as well. He’ll also play a big role on Team USA’s penalty kill, according to head coach Tony Granato.
“He’s a talented two-way player better known for his defensive abilities,” Granato said. “I also like his intelligence in the offensive zone. He’s a good, solid player, very versatile, and he should play a solid two-way checking role for us.
“We don’t expect him to lead the team in scoring,” the coach added, “but we expect him to do things well on both ends of the ice. He’s hard to play against.”
In the 2005 movie “Miracle,” which celebrates the United States’ gold medal-winning team from 1980, coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) tells a Team USA official, “I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones.” Granato was thinking along the same lines when he named McCarthy to Team USA’s roster.
“When you put together a team, you want a guy with character who understands his role, is coachable and dependable,” the coach said. “My staff and I watched him a lot, and everybody said the same thing, ‘He’s a guy we want.’”
McCarthy’s no stranger to winning. He led the Barracuda to the AHL’s Pacific Division title in 2017 — and a deep run in the Calder Cup playoffs after that — and captured an NCAA crown at Boston University in 2009. A gold medal in PyeongChang would be even sweeter.
For now, though, merely being an Olympian is enough.
“This is something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid,” McCarthy said. “To be honest, I never thought I’d have the chance to do this.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Wed., Feb. 14||Slovenia||Preliminary||OTL, 2-3||Kwandong Hockey Centre|
|Fri., Feb. 16||Slovakia||Preliminary||W, 2-1||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Sat., Feb. 17||Olympic Athletes From Russia||Preliminary||L, 0-4||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Tues., Feb. 20||Slovakia||Qualification||W, 5-1||Gangneung Hockey Centre|
|Wed., Feb 21||Czech Republic||Quarterfinals||SOL, 2-3||Gangneung Hockey Centre|