The Winter Olympics come along every four years. I’ve been to three of them and can attest to the warming power of the Olympic flame, even in sub-freezing temperatures.
The Avalanche plays 82 times a season.
Tuesday night, I was fully aware of all the asterisks that came with Olympic hockey this time in PyeongChang. No players under NHL contract. A Team USA mostly made up of American pros playing in Europe with a handful of collegians, including DU’s Troy Terry, the subject of my interview for Mile High Sports Magazine, tossed in. No pretense that these were the best players in the world … on any team.
Although we had both Avalanche vs. Canucks and USA vs. the Czech Republic on and visible, we primarily watched the Olympic quarterfinal. The games started only a few minutes apart and the intermissions essentially coincided.
I couldn’t resist, although the Avalanche’s 5-4 overtime win over Vancouver was its most stirring of the season — and potentially crucial in its struggle to get through the road-dominated portion of the schedule without falling out of contention for a Western Conference wild-card playoff spot.
It was the Winter Olympics, the quadrennial event that can make you care about skeleton and the Nordic Combined and hope for the founding or a professional curling league soon while digging out the DVDs to find the “Corner Gas” episode about curling in Dog River. (I’ve been to four Summer Games, too, and while the experience is similar, I’ve always found the Winter Games more fun. I can’t explain it. I just know.) The Americans lost a heartbreaker, falling 3-2 in a shootout.
There will be no medals for the Americans.
By Tuesday night (our time), I felt as if I fully had adopted and become familiar with the USA roster. Plus, of course, twice-former-Avalanche coach Tony Granato, on temporary leave from the University of Wisconsin, was behind the bench.
Primarily before the Games started, but also a bit after they opened, there was considerable misunderstanding out there about the Olympic hockey dynamic. Even if the non-NHL USA roster stormed through and won the gold, this would not have been anything close to a miracle, and it even was insulting to the legacy of the 1980 Team to hint at that. That was a Miracle. In a sporting world in which announcers marvel at 18-foot-jumpers as “unbelievable!”, it for a change bordered on being just that. Did that really happen? A team mostly of collegians, captained by a guy (Mike Eruzione) who was cut by the horrible Colorado Rockies and was eligible for the Olympics only because playing in the International Hockey League (plus six games in the AHL) somehow didn’t taint his “amateur” standing.
This patchwork roster of veteran pros — albeit those playing somewhere other than the NHL — and collegians faced long odds. Yet it was nothing impossible, in part because the opposition that in no way even got in the same rink as that 1980 Soviet team, the best in the world — better, even, than the NHL’s All-Stars.
By the time the preliminary round was over, it seemed that “return to college kids” myth was pretty much quashed.
Also, though, as play continued, it became more clear that perhaps that’s what USA Hockey should have tried to pull off.
Terry and Harvard’s Ryan Donato — whose father, Ted, played with Joe Sacco, Keith Tkachuk and Scott Young on the 1992 team at the Albertville Games that lost to the “Unified” team in the semifinals — were the USA’s best players. Veteran forward Brian O’Neill, playing in the KHL, had a good tournament, too. It also was easy to root for the veteran pros who clearly were gratified to be there, including (but not limited to) Brian Gionta, Chris Bourque (Ray’s son), James Wiesnewski, ex-Avalanche winger Ryan Stoa and Noah Welch.
The NHL should have been in PyeongChang. Erik Johnson should been playing for the USA, Gabe Landeskog for Sweden, Nathan MacKinnon for Canada, Mikko Rantanen for Finland … and maybe more.
The NHL should return to the Olympics in Beijing in 2022.
The players want to be there and it makes marketing sense.
The ill-informed who grouse as if the hockey competition with NHL players taints the Games are ignorant of the fact that Alpine skiers and many others are making major-league money. And how does having second-tier pros, but pros nonetheless, make the USA team more noble than if it had NHL players?
Realistically, if the NHL stays away, the USA — regardless of the approaches other nations, including Canada, take — should go all the way. (Canada has ex-Avalanche players Rene Bourque, Wojtek Wolski, Karl Stollery and Stefan Elliott on its roster.)
Make Team USA all collegians.
That’s not a second-guess about what USA Hockey did this time.
It’s a reflection on what it should try next.
Ideally, in 2022, have all agree that the selections convene in January and play a short exhibition schedule, then head to China. That would require consider academic flexibility by the universities, of course, but in this online age and and athletic world in which scheduling means players are on the road more than Imagine Dragons, that can be handled.
I’m not saying an all-collegian team would have been better or advanced farther than this squad that lost in the shootout in the quarterfinals Tuesday night (our time).
I’m not saying it wouldn’t have.
I don’t know.
I just think it would have been even more fun to watch. And root for.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:
Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett