GANGNEUNG, South Korea – It was one of those debates best suited to take place in a Boston beer joint. Ben Smith and his good friend Bill Cleary loved to banter back and forth, like only two Harvard-educated Beantowners with rich hockey pedigrees can, about the merits of professional players competing in the Olympics.
From Cleary’s vantage point, which sits on the perch as one of the greatest Americans to ever play the game, the choice is simple. The Olympics have been and always will be the manifest destiny of the finest amateur players this country has to offer.
For Smith, a man whose impact on the game can be felt on so many levels, the choice is a more practical one. If you care about the Olympics, then you care enough to send your very best.
It’s a spirited give and take that could go on long until the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s been an ongoing argument over the last 20 years,” said Smith, who joined his friend in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last December.
“I’ve always teased him a little bit in the sense that when his team won the [Olympic] gold medal in Squaw Valley in 1960 I would ask him, ‘Billy, who was the best player in America in 1960?’ He would start to stammer a little bit because he didn’t want to admit that it was him. So, I say, ‘Why not let the best kid in America play in 2018, regardless of whether he’s a postman or a professional hockey player or a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?’”
So, when the NHL decided to forgo a 20-year tradition of sending its players to compete in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, both USA Hockey icons got their wish. Sort of.
Under the guidance of general manager Jim Johannson, along with a lot of input from Smith, who is serving as the director of player personnel, the U.S. has assembled a team that features both amateurs and professional players alike.
Tony Granato is making his Olympic head coaching debut in South Korea
Among the mix are players from 12 states and seven different leagues, including four current collegiate players. There are former first round NHL draft picks, well-traveled journeymen, the son of an NHL legend and potential future superstars.
That all excites Smith because it shows the growing depth of the U.S. talent pool.
“We have a lot of great American players around the world who are going to get an opportunity of a lifetime,” said the head coach who led the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team to gold in 1998.
“Some of these players are not that well known, and maybe even not that well known to USA Hockey, but I think we have put a team together of good players, of proud players. And I think you’ll see a great effort from the team that wears that USA jersey. And I know that we will all be excited and be behind them.”
That excitement is amplified inside the U.S. locker room.
“We have a chance that we never thought we’d get so everything from here is just icing on the cake,” said Bobby Butler, who plays for the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League.
“You have 25 guys who are just hungry and excited to change people’s minds.”
The job of meshing those individuals into a cohesive unit falls on the shoulders of head coach Tony Granato, who is joined by a group of coaches who have made the international stage, including Chris Chelios and Scott Young, who between them competed in seven Olympics. They are joined on the staff by Keith Allain and Ron Rolston, who have deep roots in the organization’s development system.
With five days to prepare for the first game on Feb. 14 against Slovenia, a lifetime in comparison with past Olympic preparations, Granato is thrilled about how this team has come together both on and off the ice.
“I know they’re ready for the opportunity,” said Granato, who played in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. “All of these guys have had great careers and taken great paths to get to where they’re at. It’s a different path from Patrick Kane and those guys from the last few Olympics, but they’re all great hockey players. They deserve to be here.”
That is a testament to Johannson, who knew the ins and outs of the U.S. talent pool better than he knew his extended family back home in Rochester, Minn. His sudden passing on Jan. 21 has created an unfillable void, but there’s been no shortage of people willing to step up to help bring his vision to fruition.
“Every piece of this team is all Jim Johannson’s work. He thought through this whole thing from how he put the staff together to how we did the evaluations and where we were going to draw our players from,” Granato said of his long-time friend and former teammate. “That’s what excites me, the plan that he had in place for all of us to execute. And our players feel the same way.”
One of those players is Jonathan Blum who, like the rest of his teammates, had long ago given up on any shot of fulfilling an Olympic dream. After becoming the first California-born-and-raised player to be selected in the first round of the NHL draft, the Long Beach native spent five seasons in the NHL before joining Vladivostok in the Kontinental Hockey League.
“I never ever thought that it would happen,” said Blum, who has suited up for USA Hockey in the past, including the two U.S. National Junior Teams.
“You always want the best to go. Those young guys in the NHL are unbelievable and I’m sure the fans would love to see them playing. But we’re all here now and hopefully they get behind us and cheer us on.”
That’s the beauty of the Olympics. Players who are unknown today can become household names overnight. All it takes is a few early victories to capture the attention of an entire nation and the whole thing can snowball from there. It’s happened before, and this group of players is confident that it could happen again.
|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|