New Jersey

Would a US Men's Ice Hockey Gold in 2018 Be Another Miracle?

"I don't see this as being a super huge challenge, other than coming together as a team," Mike Eruzione said

The Winter Olympics are approaching against a backdrop of nuclear-armed tension, NHL players won't be playing in the hockey tournament and the men's team from Russia is the distinct favorite to win gold.

What was true in 1980 is also shaping up as the situation for Team USA at the 2018 Olympics.

The NHL has refused to let its players represent their countries at the games, but the bona fide Russian stars playing in the world's second-best hockey league, the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, can still make the trip to Pyeongchang. Bookies have Team Russia as the front-runner in the run-up to the 2018 Games, while some of the Americans playing may be unknown even to serious hockey fans.

Still, if you ask the captain of the "Miracle on Ice" team, it won't count as a miracle if the group of American college kids and professionals playing in minor leagues or abroad beats Russia this time around.

"We're a good team, we're not unknowns anymore. The days of the 'Miracle on Ice,' those days are over," said Mike Eruzione, now director of special outreach at Boston University. "1980 will never happen again."

Russia has won four world championships in the last decade, but it's a perennial underachiever at the Olympics, last medaling in 2002 and only winning silver before that. Russia was eliminated by the U.S. in the first round at the 2014 Sochi Games despite being on home ice. The Soviet team, by contrast, won gold in seven of nine tries. 

But Russia's time may be at hand, after the NHL said in April that it would not disrupt its season for 17 days to accommodate Olympic play. NHL players have participated in the Olympics since 1998. 

The KHL, which features teams from across Europe and one in China, has plenty of Russian players who were all-stars back in North America.

Ilya Kovalchuk, who once led the NHL in goals, retired from the New Jersey Devils in his prime to move to Russia. He could have returned to the U.S. over the offseason this year, but has called the Olympics "one of the main factors" in deciding against it. His SKA Saint Petersberg teammates, Pavel Datsyuk and Slava Voynov, won Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings and L.A. Kings, respectively. (Voynov went to jail on a domestic violence charge in 2015, then decamped for Russia.)

Meanwhile, the all-time highest-scoring foreigner in the KHL is Brandon Bochenski, a Minnesota native who's relatively unknown stateside but was the captain of Barys Astana in Kazakhstan. He retired this year with 154 goals in seven KHL seasons, after scoring just 28 goals in five years in the NHL. Bochenski last played for the Kazakh national team — he's a newly minted citizen.

U.S. men's coach Tony Granato is picking players for his roster among Americans playing abroad, in domestic minor leagues (unless their contract would allow them to play in the NHL) and in colleges. The list will be announced around Jan. 1.

The Team USA line-up for an international Olympic tune-up tournament this November offers a glimpse into who will be playing in Pyeongchang, and it lacks the star power of their Russian rivals. 

Brian Gionta, who won a Stanley Cup in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils, is the most recognizable name on the list, but the 38 year old is eligible for the Olympics only because no NHL team signed him this year. The other player on the list with prior Olympic experience is Ryan Malone, 37. He last played in the NHL in 2014 and retired before suiting up again this year for the Iowa Wild of North America's top minor league, the American Hockey League. He has one assist in eight games, in which his team has been outscored by eight goals when he's been on the ice (excluding power plays).

But navigating the Olympics without NHL players isn't bothering coach Granato.

"I think we have a tremendous talent pool of players that are available to us," Granato said. "We'll be able to put together a fun team, an energetic team and a skilled team that'll make the Americans proud."

Granato noted the way players in the U.S. grow up dreaming of wearing the jersey: "You're playing in the basement of your house and you're pretending like you're Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig and Mark Johnson."

Eruzione is, of course, familiar with winning against a much-hyped team from Russia, scoring the game-winning goal in the "Miracle" game and taking the gold-medal podium as Team USA's captain.

But despite the long odds, he always thought they could make the podium.

"I always tell people, if you think you're going to lose, you probably will," Eruzione said.

He knows all the ex-NHL stars that Russia will have in 2018, while the U.S. will be missing guys like Patrick Kane and budding stars Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. But he noted some very big differences between his team and today's that make it hard to compare the two.

For one thing, his 1980 team had six months of training to gel as a team, while none of the top Olympic teams will train together for anything like that much time. Eruzione's team had an average age of 21, while this team will probably be much older.

Oh, and the U.S. junior players, some of whom are in contention to make the team, are the reigning world champions, having beaten Canada in a shootout.

"I don't see this as being a super huge challenge, other than coming together as a team," Eruzione said.

He knows one of the college players who starred on that victorious world junior team, Jordan Greenway, from his work at Boston University, where Greenway is a junior.

He's an "awesome kid," big and competitive, Eruzione said, and definitely has a chance of making the team.

"It's obviously a big change," Greenway said of the NHL's decision not to participate in the Olympics. "I think everyone's really excited just to kind of see how it turns out."

Eruzione didn't have too much advice for the collegiate players who may end up taking the ice against some of the best Russian players of their generation with the whole world watching. They already have plenty of international experience, he said.

"You're still playing on a sheet of ice. Who's in the crowd is really irrelevant," Eruzione said. "Just go out there and play."

Contact Us