U.S. men's hockey coach Granato can't wait for fans to discover his players
For the first time in 20 years, the NHL will not be sending its players to the Olympics.
Opinions vary on whether or not that was the right decision -- with even Tony Granato, the men's coach, expressing mixed emotions during a visit to the United Center in early January.
"I loved it when the NHL players could play," said Granato, a Downers Grove native who also coaches Wisconsin's hockey team. "I loved watching Patrick Kane (in 2014). …
"But I also like the fact that in 1980 and '84 and '88, those players that we never heard of all of a sudden became American stars."
Imagine if the Miracle On Ice never took place. If the country was never introduced to Mike Eruzione. Or Jim Craig. Or Mark Johnson. Or coach Herb Brooks. Or if we never heard the most famous call in all of sports: "DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? YES!"
It was a different time and a different era, one in which pro athletes didn't compete in the Olympics. That all changed in the mid-1990s, much to the chagrin of some.
"When you think of Olympics, you think of the purity of it," Granato said. "You think of stories being made -- not stories that are already made."
Still, Granato remains on the fence because he believes the NHL's participation in the Games helped grow the sport in immeasurable ways over the past two decades.
"For our game, it was important to see that Patrick Kane's American, Jonathan Quick's American," Granato said. "We needed that. That was one of the steps on why our team continues to grow. USA Hockey's done a great job of that."
The NHL's decision not to participate came down to a few factors, but the biggest sticking point was a disagreement between the league and the International Olympic Committee. In the past the IOC had paid for travel, insurance and lodging but refused to do so this time. The league did receive an offer from the International Ice Hockey Federation to pay up to $20 million for cost and insurance, but the NHL still balked, saying it didn't want to disrupt the season and put its athletes at risk for injury.
Another possible reason? Because the Olympics are in South Korea, the games will be played at odd local times such as 1:40 a.m., 6:10 a.m. and 9:10 a.m. The men's gold medal game will begin at 12:10 a.m. on Feb. 25.
The U.S. opens pool play against Slovenia on Feb. 14 at 6:10 a.m, local time.
"If we get the chance, we'll definitely be tuning in and watching," said Kane, who wishes the NHL was still taking part.
Granato thinks the NHL will return at some point because the players want to play and because many young stars like Connor McDavid and Patrick Lainie have yet to participate.
For now, though, he's excited about his roster, which includes:
• Brian Gionta, 39, who scored 20 or more goals for the New Jersey Devils from 2005-11.
• Chris Bourque, the 31-year-old son of Hall of Famer Raymond Borque.
• Mark Arcobello, who has 17 goals and 27 assists in 42 games in the Swiss League.
• And defensemen James Wisniewski (remember him, Hawks fans?), Jon Blum, Noah Welch and Bobby Butler.
"There's a great opportunity for our team to have a special place in Olympic history just based on the fact that we're going back to guys that are somewhat unknown," Granato said. "You learn about the athletes as the Olympics came close and then you watched them and cheered for them."
If the NHL stays away again, Granato said the U.S. should consider fielding a team strictly made up of younger players.
"Then you could do what the (1980-94) teams did -- pick your team August," Granato said. "Play 40 or 50 games together and then get ready for the Olympics.
"I know we have enough players in collegiate hockey, if you had six months together, you could put together a heckuva hockey team."