When Ryan Gunderson read last April that the National Hockey League would not send its players to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, he reacted the way most of us did.
“As a fan I was like, `That stinks,’ ’’ said the Bensalem native. “Because you want to see those guys, right? I honestly didn’t think about what it meant. Or at all until Jim called in mid-July.’’
Jim is Jim Johannson, the late assistant executive director of USA Hockey who was charged with assembling an Olympic team in the wake of the NHL’s announcement.
“He said, `We’re starting to compile a big list of guys and your name might be on there’ ’’ Gunderson recalled recently. “Until then I hadn’t really thought about it.’’
Why would he have? At age 32, Gunderson had never played in an international tournament or for any U.S. national team at any level. A puck-moving offensive defenseman, he was a surprise achiever at virtually every level he tried in hockey, first as a high school star at Holy Ghost Prep, next as a walk-on at the University of Vermont, and then as he maneuvered his way through professional hockey’s fickle underbelly.
Trenton of the ECHL. Lowell and Houston in the AHL. Then to Sweden. The KHL for a couple of years, then back to Sweden.
“As it went on, I became a decent college player,’’ he said. “But I never had expectations of being an NHL player. … I knew I was going to be in the East Coast League to start. From there, it was to try and get a good resume playing there and try to get over to Europe. And see what I could do over there.’’
What he did was build a life, and apparently a reputation. He met a Swedish woman. He graduated to top-tier leagues and became a top-tier defenseman. Generously listed at 5-10 and 180 pounds, he had a game that matured as he did on the bigger international ice. He became an assistant captain for his Brynas IF team in 2016 after helping it to the SHL finals, earning a little over $550,000 – half of which, he said, goes to taxes.
This season, Gunderson has 27 points in 36 games, more than any defenseman in his league. It’s a pace that would eclipse his career best for points if it were to continue. He is also one of the team’s older players, although Johannson’s template for the U.S. team before his shocking death at age 53 – he died in his sleep on Jan.21 — was to build one of experience rather than youth.
The U.S. team is captained by 39-year-old former NHL player Brian Gionta and filled with 30-something players like Gunderson, who have built alternative lives playing in Europe. They are more conditioned to the grind of repetitive high-level games than a roster of more talented but younger college or junior players would be, and discipline is by definition less of a problem too.
For some, these Olympics represent a last look by needy NHL eyes. For others, like Gunderson, it is simply a life’s achievement, a reward for all those sacrifices made to continue playing the game.
For all, it is a chance to represent your country on its grandest stage.
“There’s such a mix on this team of old and young, and I guess you need both,’’ Gunderson said said. “But I still see myself as young and getting better even at my age.’’
Players began arriving in South Korea on Thursday. Roles are still being defined, although head coach Tony Granato, the former Olympian and NHL player, had a chance to experiment some in November, when a larger version of this team competed in Germany’s annual Deutschland Tournament.
That version of the U.S. squad scored just four goals and lost all three games it played, although it held an early 2-0 lead over Olympic favorite Russia in its final game before surrendering five straight goals. Gunderson played with several partners over the first and only international tournament of his life, including Lumberton, N.J.’s, Bobby Sanguinetti, one of the four local players represented on the 2018 squad.
Separated by three years in age and 16 miles in upbringing, they met for the first time during that tournament. Sanguinetti had taken the juniors route from high school and had wowed scouts enough to be drafted in the first round by the Rangers. He had brief stints with the Rangers and Hurricanes before reviving his career and confidence in Europe. A strong showing in Pyeongchang over the next few weeks might recharge his narrative.
Gunderson? This is the most charged his narrative has ever been.
“My friends are always texting me, `Haha, what a world,’ ’’ he said as he packed for the long flight to South Korea. “This was beyond my wildest expectations this time last year.
“But when the opportunity came, I grabbed it. And now, when you sit back and look at it, it’s got a chance to be a wild story.’’