Until now, the U.S. Olympic hockey experience can be broken into two eras. The first, punctuated by the 1980 Miracle on Ice, featured a green team of young amateurs, most plucked from college teams, battling savvier, more experienced teams on larger ice surfaces that further challenged both conditioning and skill.
It began when Olympic hockey did in 1920, that era lasted until 1998, when the National Hockey League, seeing the two-week international showcase as a way to broaden the reach of its game, shut down and allowed its players to represent their nations. This led both to spectacular hockey and the intended result – so much so that the NHL decided this time around that the showcase was more bother than it was now worth, and bypassed the Olympic experience.
Enter the third era, a limbo of sorts, a U.S. team dominated by players competing in European professional leagues who have already taken their shot at playing in the NHL, or were never given that opportunity. Scattered among such 30-something players are several college skaters, including one who will make history when this U.S. team opens its unlikely quest for gold Wednesday morning with a preliminary-round game against Slovenia.
Jordan Greenway will be the first African American player on a United States Olympic hockey team. And while that was never part of his Olympic dream – he grew up in the predominantly white northern New York town of Canton – the Boston University junior winger, who will turn 21 on Friday, embraced its significance from the moment he and his “dream team’’ comrades were announced on New Year’s Day.
“I think it’s great; it’s unbelievable,” he told Gannett News Services recently. “I don’t think it’s hit me how I think it will later on in my life to be honest with you. I grew up around a predominantly white population and a lot of white people playing [hockey], so I’ve always looked at it as just another kid. I think it’s an honor. I’m very excited about it. I hope I’m the first of many.”
A second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild as an 18-year-old in 2015, Greenway elected to play at Boston University. According to The Undefeated website, he is one of 13 African American athletes currently competing in the NCAA, and one of just four college players on a U.S. team otherwise composed of professional veterans – including a couple of former NHL players: defenseman James Wisniewski and 37-year-old Brian Gionta, the U.S. captain.
Four players from the Philadelphia area are among them: defensemen Ryan Gunderson (Radnor) and Bobby Sanguinetti (Lumberton, N.J.) and forwards Brian O’Neill (Yardley) and Chad Kolarik (Abington).
A seventh-round pick by the Coyotes in the 2004 NHL draft out of the University of Michigan, Kolarik, 32, has played in Sweden and now Germany after five seasons bouncing around North American minor leagues. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he has been a consistent points producer wherever he has played.
O’Neill, 29, won the AHL’s Most Valuable Player Award after a 2014-15 season with the Manchester Monarchs in which he led the league in points and logged 22 games with the New Jersey Devils. Formerly signed by the Los Angeles Kings, he has been playing in Finland’s Professional League for the last two seasons and, like his age peers, sees in this makeshift team a chance to surprise, a la the U.S. 1980 gold-medal team.
“That opportunity that they got is a lot of parallels to the opportunity we’re getting today in this Olympics,” O’Neill said the other day. “I think if you’re a normal USA hockey player, you look at the 1980 team regardless, but us being in very similar situations, it definitely gives us a lot of motivation and inspiration.”
That U.S. team of younger players was forged through a grueling six-month process filled with a full season’s worth of games against international competition. This team played three games in Germany’s Deustchland Cup, scoring just four goals.
Then again, the favored Russian Olympic team is not exactly the fear-inciting CCCP team of yesteryear, either. Also, as the captain of that 1980 team, Mike Eruzione pointed out to NBC this week that this U.S. team is hardly the group of strangers that his team began as. “They’ve played against each other,’’ Eruzione said. “They’ve played with each other. There are four players from Boston University there that know each other.’’
And four players from Yale too, a couple guys from Harvard and, including Greenway, three who played at Eruzione’s old school, Boston University.
“With Brian as an older leader, I guarantee he’s got that team in place and everybody hanging together and being together,” Eruzione said. ”The sport of hockey brings people together right away. You learn that at a young age, how important your teammates are and how important it is to become a team right away.’’