Getty Images

Underdog U.S. players ‘trying to prove some doubters wrong’

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The ”Miracle On Ice” was a Minnesota production.

If the U.S. pulls off another Olympic miracle, it would be a nationwide effort.

When the 1980 U.S. hockey team made up of college kids shocked the favored Soviet Union on the way to winning the gold medal, 13 players came from Minnesota, four from Massachusetts, two from Michigan and one from Wisconsin. The 2018 team couldn’t be constructed more differently with players from 12 different states and leagues all over the world, though it has the same underdog approach from careers of being discounted and passed over.

”We’re trying to prove some doubters wrong,” goaltender Ryan Zapolski said. ”We’ve all had pretty successful pro careers, I think, but we still have doubters, for sure. And I think that’s a motivation for us. We’ve been overlooked pretty much our whole careers, much of us, so just in the back of our minds we still think of those times where people didn’t give us the right chances and have this opportunity now to kind of take advantage of that.”

Again, a team of Russians is the favorite even if it’s under a neutral flag and again the U.S. is trying to end a lengthy gold-medal drought, which dates back to 1980. The Americans will try to do it with players from Massachusetts, New York, Michigan and Minnesota and some less-common hockey hotbeds: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, California, Connecticut, Virginia, Florida and Arizona.

Three players come from Philadelphia suburbs alone.

”To have three kids from Philadelphia, you would never have seen on that 1980 team,” said Brian O’Neill, a native of Yardley, Pennsylvania. ”I think it just shows you how far hockey has come in the U.S. where you have a California representative, you have a Pennsylvania representative, Florida – you name it. I think that’s just a testament to how good hockey’s gotten in the U.S.”

The NHL’s expansion into the Sun Belt led forward Broc Little to start playing in Arizona, goalie Brandon Maxwell in Florida and defenseman Jonathon Blum in Southern California. As players seek to build chemistry quickly for a short tournament, they think the varying backgrounds can only help.

”There’s different culture, there’s different mindsets,” Blum said. ”(Players from) different states bring different things. Californians like to stay laid back and more easygoing, so I try to bring that to the room.”

In the room, only captain Brian Gionta, at 39, is old enough to have been alive for the 1980 Olympics and is proud of the diversity on the 25-man roster. Winning gold in Lake Placid certainly had an effect on spreading hockey. Tony Granato, now coach, had teammates from Texas and Oklahoma at the 1988 Olympics, and the progression has continued.

”The ’80 team was basically Massachusetts and Minnesota,” Granato said. ”It says that our game isn’t as regional as it used to be, so I think that’s a positive thing: players coming from all over the place.”

Many of these players started from the bottom, now they’re here. Zapolski, fellow goalie David Leggio and defensemen Matt Gilroy and Ryan Gunderson were all college walk-ons and now get to reprise that role by being thrust into the Olympic spotlight as NHL continues its season.

”All of these guys have had great paths to get to where they’re at,” Granato said. ”It’s different paths than Patrick Kane and those guys had from the last few Olympics, but they’re all great hockey players.”

Gunderson, one of the three Philadelphia-area products, said people back home often forget that no team in the tournament has an NHL player. But the Russians have stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, while the U.S. has 10 players – including all three goalies – who haven’t played in the NHL.

On paper, the U.S. doesn’t stack up well against Russia, which draws players from just three Kontinental Hockey League clubs. Zapolski said he and his teammates are well-aware of the predictions that don’t give them much of a chance.

”We’re as good as anybody, but we know we’re not a favorite out here so I think it’s a little extra chip on our shoulder, too, going into every game, especially against a team like Russia,” the Erie, Pennsylvania native said. ”We know we’re going to be big underdogs against them. I’m sure it’s extra motivation.”

The Americans are motivated by slights, but there’s a reason they won’t be putting on ”Underdog” masks like the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles: They think they can do some damage.

”You look at the rosters of some of the teams, obviously they’ve got some great players,” Gionta said. ”But where this team is at and the hunger that this team shows, anything’s possible.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

Leave a comment

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

Leave a comment

Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

2 Comments

Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

11 Comments

We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.