PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Tony Granato brought his Wisconsin Badgers hockey team to Minneapolis for a weekend series against the Gophers in early December. He also had other business on his mind.
As coach of the U.S. men’s hockey team, Granato was conducting final evaluations in putting together a 25-man Olympic roster. With NHL players forced to stay home, the expectation was that Granato and USA Hockey would focus mostly on professionals playing in Europe and minor leaguers with NHL experience.
Don’t forget about college players, Granato said during a quiet moment at Mariucci Arena. He indicated they might pick as many as eight college players.
They settled on four, but maybe eight would have been better. Frankly, the young guys have been among few bright spots for Team USA.
Team USA went 1-2 in the preliminary round, and its collegians have been among their most productive players.
Wild prospect Jordan Greenway, a Boston University junior, centered the top line in the opener, scored a goal in that game and leads in the team in shots with 12.
Ryan Donato of Harvard scored two power-play goals in a 2-1 win over Slovakia. He plays on the second line along with fellow winger Troy Terry, a speed-burner from the University of Denver.
All three forwards rank among team leaders in ice time because they play in every situation — even strength, power play and penalty kill — which shows Granato’s trust in them.
The fourth collegian, defenseman Will Borgen of St. Cloud State, has been scratched all three games.
“We didn’t pick college guys to kind of groom them for the next Olympics, or something else down the road,” Granato said. “We put them on our team because they’re going to be big parts of it and have major impact on how we do.”
This is a big step up in competition for them, especially against a team with the firepower of Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR). They don’t face anyone with the skill of Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk in the college ranks.
They are playing against men here, professionals. One-third of all players participating in the Olympics currently play in the Kontinental Hockey League, which is widely regarded as the second-best league in the world behind the NHL.
The speed of the game is considerably faster, but they don’t look overwhelmed by it. If anything, they seem more up to the task than some of their older teammates, who have looked overmatched at times.
The way Granato uses his three college forwards is particularly interesting. He hasn’t eased them into action, he doesn’t baby them in any way. He tipped his hand during a pre-Olympic conference call shortly after the team was announced.
“They won’t have minimal roles,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Donato and Greenway squared off in the Beanpot semifinal. Greenway got bragging rights with BU’s overtime victory. Now they are trying to help the Americans stay alive as the Olympic tournament enters qualification playoff round. The U.S. will face Slovakia for a berth in the quarterfinals.
“Life is moving pretty fast right now,” Donato said.
They’re moving fast along with it. The speed of the college players jumps out when you watch them play, even Greenway, who skates well for someone listed at 6-6 and 227 pounds.
Donato and Terry are smallish in size, but they skate fast and that plays well on the larger Olympic rink.
“It is kind of our team identity, our speed,” Terry said.
Donato provided a flashback with his two goals against Slovakia. His father, Ted, was the second-leading goal scorer on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Ted now coaches his son at Harvard.
Father and son talk before every game. This week his dad told him to stop shooting high and go low. His son took that advice to heart, beating the Slovak goalie low on his first goal.
“It was a good feeling,” he said.
Team USA will need more of that to advance in this tournament. It seems clear now that Granato realized he needed major contributions from the college kids when he was putting this team together.