Minnesota hockey is well-represented on the just-released U.S. national team roster for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, with nine players with strong ties to the state heading to the Games.
Three Gophers — Ben Meyers, Matthew Knies and Brock Faber — made the team. Noah Cates from Minnesota Duluth, Nathan Smith from Minnesota State Mankato and Sam Hentges and Nick Perbix from St. Cloud State are heading to Beijing as well.
Aaron Ness, the 2008 Mr. Hockey out of Roseau High School who played for the Gophers and is now in the AHL, will be a defenseman on the team, as will Boston College's Drew Helleson, who is a Farmington native and attended Shattuck-St. Mary's.
The nine men's Olympic players with Minnesota ties matches the nine on the women's Olympic team, revealed on Jan. 1. The "State of Hockey" has filled Olympic rosters many times before, including the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team, which boasted 13 Minnesota-born players and St. Paul native Herb Brooks as the coach.
For this team, USA Hockey previously announced Mike Hastings of Minnesota State Mankato and Brett Larson of St. Cloud State as assistant coaches under head coach David Quinn.
"It says a lot about Minnesota hockey," said Smith, a Florida native who is in his third season on the Mavericks. "And Coach Hastings being an assistant coach, I think he's just as proud as any of us. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So I think he's really looking forward to it, too. He's excited."
The mix of veteran players from European leagues and the AHL with college prospects stems from the NHL's decision to not send its players to the Olympics. The NHL cited COVID-19 concerns, because Chinese restrictions could force any athlete who tests positive at the Games to spend several extra weeks in the country for quarantine.
USA Hockey won't have much time to pull this team together. While some will convene in Los Angeles before heading to Asia, those who are playing in the professional European leagues will have to fly directly to China. So the first time the entire unit is together will be the evening of Feb. 3 in Beijing. The team's first game is Feb. 10, which gives Quinn about a week to make the team jell.
"We've got some guys that have played together before, so maybe we start with them," Quinn said on a video call Thursday evening, along with Smith. "… There have been some discussions on line combinations and D pairings and things like that. But we're going to have to make decisions in a hurry. There's not a lot of time for practices. There's not a lot of time for players to play through bad stretches."
Quinn said everyone on his coaching staff, though, has experience playing or coaching at the international level, as do many of the players despite how young some of them are. Michigan's Matty Beniers, for example, won the World Juniors Championships last season and is still only 19 years old.
"It speaks volumes to how good college hockey is, and not just one league," Beniers said on the same video call. "… There's a lot of great players, and college hockey is really good. I think it gets overlooked sometimes. It's tough. It's big. It's fast. It's hard. And I think it prepares you well for the next level."
Gophers coach Bob Motzko said his players will miss at least six college games, starting in late January with the Games scheduled to run from Feb. 4-20.
Motzko called this "a great opportunity" for his trio of players. But he also acknowledged the tough situation it put his team in, as well as some others around the NCAA.
"Bob Motzko thinks we took too many Gophers right now, but that's OK," Quinn joked. "No, he was unbelievable. It's a proud moment for Gophers hockey, and it's a proud moment for all the universities that have guys on this team."
Meyers lamented that he'll be missing games with the Gophers, who are looking to make the Frozen Four this season after finishing just short a year ago.
But for the undrafted Delano native who originally committed to play college hockey at Nebraska Omaha, this is the realization of an almost unbelievable dream.
"I've never had the chance to play for Team USA at any level, really," Meyers said earlier this week before the roster announcement. "It'd certainly be an honor. I don't know if I can really put it into words right now."