The concept of “getting the band back together” has floated around the lexicon since “The Blues Brothers” was released in 1980. Coincidentally, that was also the last year in which the U.S. men’s hockey national team won Olympic gold.
Getting the band back together has sometimes been a problem for USA Hockey, resulting in a slavish commitment to over-the-hill players when the roster should be turned over to younger stars. An eighth-place finish in the 2006 Winter Games becomes a little more understandable when you realize there’s a player born in the damn 1960s on the roster.
But in preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, and facing the singular challenge of quickly building a team without any players with current NHL contracts, USA Hockey decided the best approach was getting the band back together.
The band from 1988. No, not Def Leppard. They’ve never been apart. We’re talking about the ’88 national team.
It started with Jim Johannson, named general manager of the U.S. men’s national ice hockey team this week. He’s been the general manager of the USA Hockey National Junior Team for nine years, leading it to three gold medals. He was also a member of the men’s Olympic team in 1992 and in 1988, as a center.
When tasked with finding a coaching staff for the disparate collection of players that will fill the bench in PyeongChang, Johannson was faced with a talent pool that had been drained by the NHL boycott of the Games. If you listed the top 20 American-born hockey coaches currently working, you’d find around three quarters of them are employed in the NHL or AHL.
So he decided the best course of action was to get the band back together. Teammates from his days on the U.S. national team. Guys he trusted. Guys he knew would give everything they had for the honor of servicing the American Olympic dream.
“I want this to be USA Hockey. I want this to feel like USA Hockey,” he would tell assistant GM Ben Smith.
“The whole time, as we’re talking about names, Ben would ask ‘are they going to be available?’” recalled Johannson. “And I’d say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll get to that later.’”
The guy he targeted was Tony Granato, a former NHL player with the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks and the second-best player in his family. He served as head coach of the NHL Colorado Avalanche for three seasons, and was entering his second season as head coach of the NCAA Wisconsin Badgers, his alma mater. He was Johannson’s teammate in the 1988 Calgary Games.
Turns out, Granato was available, despite his NCAA commitment. He walked into the office of athletic director Barry Alvarez, the former Badgers football coach, and asked to join the Olympic team.
“He actually thought I was leaving the day I walked into his office. When I told him I was still going to be able to coach this year, he was really excited about it,” said Granato, who only expects to miss four games in February for the team.
“It’ll play out for me the same way it does the players we select. We’re going to stay with our organizations, with our teams, with our programs all year. I’ll take a break for the Deutschland Cup, and then the two weeks of the Olympics. I’ll have plenty of time on the side to work on our U.S. thing,” he said.
Also bringing ’88 back for the 2018 Olympic team: Assistant coach Scott Young, who is director of player development for the Pittsburgh Penguins and a teammate of Granato and Johannson on that team. The other assistants are former national team assistant coach Keith Allain, former Buffalo Sabres head coach Ron Rolston and Chris Chelios, the four-time Olympian and Hockey Hall of Famer whose still gets jokes made at his expense about playing into his 40s.
“The problem with Chris is right now he’s probably skating right now thinking we’re asking him to play,” said Granato.
When it comes to the roster these gentlemen are going to construct for the 2018 Olympics, you’re going to have veteran players well past their expiration dates, mixing with Americans on European teams and players that are on AHL-only contracts and college players that haven’t signed NHL entry level contracts yet.
Johannson reiterated that there are not going to be any players on NHL contracts on the Olympic roster, saying that USA Hockey will “honor that partnership” with the NHL. So in the coming weeks and months, a bunch of American hockey players are going to have to make some tough decisions if presented with an NHL contract:
Sign it, and their Olympic dream is deferred or done.
This going to be especially tough for one type of veteran player Johannson and Granato are targeting: Recent NHL players without contracts, and with ties to USA Hockey. That group includes forwards like Brian Gionta and Drew Stafford and defensemen like John-Michael Liles and Matt Greene.
Jim Johannson said he’s spoken to “80 or 90” players about the Olympics thus far. Goaltending, as expected, will be a challenge. The tempo they want is fast, with the kind of puck possession one needs on the larger ice surface of the Olympics. He said the key is getting young, talented players and a “blend of older, experienced players that ‘know how to play the game’ and understand the big ice.”
But what they’ve found in these preliminary talks with players is unbounded enthusiasm about representing their county, in the absence of the NHL.
“I can’t tell you the excitement coming from these players about the potential and the opportunity to play for USA Hockey in the Olympics,” said Johannson. “It’s like a refresher. Like you hit a button with some of these players at this stage in their careers. When I’m making those phone calls, I feel like I’m talking to a little kid.”
The last time the Americans won gold, Tony Granato was slightly older than a “little kid.” He was 16. He was two years away from playing in World Juniors for the United States, the first time he would wear the national team sweater. Six years later, he was an Olympian. Twenty years after that, he’s the coach of the team.
“It’s an unbelievable honor,” said Granato. “I’m more than excited to get this thing going.”
Who wouldn’t be?
Much like getting the band back together is a hallmark of American hockey, unbridled enthusiasm is as well. It’s the blessing and the curse that the “Miracle on Ice” created – an underdog mentality that’s addictive as a narrative, but reductive as an approach for team building.
It’s taken nearly 40 years for the U.S. to finally declare it can challenge for gold in any tournament it plays in, at any level of hockey. But even on Friday, at Granato’s unveiling, he was answering questions about a professional player-laden Russian team and the Americans once again being the underdog.
Granato, who embodies the history of the men’s ice hockey program as a player and its future as a coach, answered it well.
“The Russians are an elite powerhouse at every level of competition. But when the U.S. program enters a tournament, we expect to compete for a medal. This will be no different.”
The correct answer is, of course, that the U.S. should expect nothing less than a gold medal. It’s the answer Canada would give.
Perhaps if Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin and Brandon Saad and Shayne Gostisbehere and a goalie you’ve heard of before were competing in 2018, that might be the expectation.
But it’s not their turn, yet. So it’s up to some old-school USA players, doing it the old school way: Grabbing the best of the rest, and trying to find the right chemistry and a dash of good fortune to conjure another ‘miracle.’
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