Cold Shoulder

No Matter What Others Might Think, U.S. Men's Team Likes Its Chances

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The first question of the introductory press conference for the U.S. Men’s Team made quite an introduction to the Olympic stage. The questioner, quoting online reports and other things he read about the team after the roster was announced on Jan. 1, asked what hopes a team of “college players and NHL retreads” could possibly have to win a gold medal.

 

The expression on head coach Tony Granato’s face was reflected on those of the 25 players who took up the first two rows of the Olympic amphitheater. As if it wasn’t already cold enough here in South Korea, the room suddenly felt much colder.

 

“First of all, I haven’t read a lot of that stuff,” Granato defiantly said. “All I know is that we’ve picked 25 players that we believe in, that we’re confident in and they’re coming here to play well and make the American people proud of what they see. That’s our attitude. 

 

“What other people think of us, that’s their opinion. Our opinion is that we’re excited for the opportunity and we’re ready for it.”

 

Sometimes, the world can seem like a pretty lonely place when everyone is against you and the only people who believe in you are sitting next to you inside the locker room. Or, if you’re wearing the red, white and blue, playing the role of underdog on the Olympic stage can be a truly liberating feeling. After all, you have history on your side.

 

“When I was watching the Olympics in 1980, I didn’t know who Mike Eruzione was or for that matter Jim Craig. Within two or three days I kind of liked those guys,” said Granato, who was 15 years old at the time. “I think if you watch our team you’ll find a few guys that you’ll like.

 

As the hockey world continues to give the U.S. Men’s Team the proverbial cold shoulder, this group is more than comfortable basking in anonymity, happy to leave the attention, and the pressure, for other countries to deal with.

 

“This is a group of guys who are well deserving. They’ve had great careers whether they’ve played a game in the NHL or not,” said team captain Brian Gionta, who has more than 1,000 NHL games on his resume. “For naysayers to knock where these guys play or their skill level, all I know is that I love our team. I love our hunger.

 

“I wouldn’t say that we’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder but we expect to come in here and compete for a medal.”

 

As the elder statesman of the group at age 39, Gionta has experienced the transformation of USA Hockey from a program in need of a miracle to win to one that expects to step on the podium every time it steps on the international ice. It’s a mindset that took root with the greatest generation of players, of which assistant coaches Chris Chelios and Scott Young were a big part, and victories in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and a silver medal at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. From there it continued to gain momentum with success at the World Junior Championships as well as other international events.

 

“To see that evolution over my career is a pretty special thing to be a part of,” said Gionta, who was a member of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team. “I think that’s something that [the late U.S. general manager] Jimmy Johannson instituted into USA Hockey. He was a big part of bringing the organization from just trying to compete and go out there to now expecting to win medals.”

 

So, while the lack of NHL players competing here is a disappointment to almost everyone, it doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. talent pool is deeper than it’s ever been and this team doesn’t have a realistic chance of winning a medal. That way of thinking just doesn’t sit well with the 25 guys in the U.S. locker room, and it certainly doesn’t sit well with their coach who wears his passion for USA Hockey on his sleeve.

 

For the current generation of American hockey players, what happened in 1980 is a story crafted in Hollywood, literally. But what took place in Lake Placid almost 40 years ago is as real as anything in American history books. But wars are no longer fought with muskets, telephones are no longer anchored to the wall and it no longer takes a “miracle” for the U.S. to win a hockey tournament.

 

“All of our players have seen the movie, “Miracle” and they all know about the team and they all know who Mike Eruzione is now,” Granato said. “We have not shown the movie to our team. I think this team to win doesn’t need a miracle. We need to be at our best and play our best for two weeks to win this tournament.”

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