Back in 1980, about the only players on the U.S. Olympic team that Tony Granato had heard of were Mark Johnson and Bob Suter, and that was only because they played at the University of Wisconsin. To be sure, he had zero familiarity with Jim Craig, the star college goalie from Boston University. And he wasn’t alone in his country. “But within two days I was doing a lot of research to find out who all these guys were,” Granato said. “And within two weeks these guys were my heroes.”
Almost four decades later, USA enters the Olympics with a team that might be only slightly familiar to the majority of the people back home. And when it comes to lesser lights, they don’t get much more obscure than goalie Ryan Zapolski from Erie, Pa., who earned a spot as a walk-on at the age of 20 at his hometown Mercyhurst College, a school known for producing far more elite women’s hockey players than men. There’s a line in the movie Slapshot where team owner Joe McGrath threatens he’ll bury Reggie Dunlop so deep that The Hockey News won’t be able to find him. Well, I can tell you that prior to him being named to the U.S. team, nobody at THN knew anything about Zapolski.
So perhaps he’s part Jim Craig, part Reggie Dunlop. And that’s OK. Zapolski has a good sense of self and knows he has earned the right to play on this team. After three years of playing in the ECHL, Zapolski took his game to Finland, first with Lukko Rauma, then with Jokerit in the KHL the past two seasons. The season he’s having in the KHL made him the natural choice to be USA starter in Pyeongchang. Going into the Games, Zapolski had the fourth-best goals-against average in the league (1.73), was fifth in save percentage (.932) and led all goaltenders in shutouts with nine. He hasn’t been as heavily relied upon in USA’s first two games – a 3-2 overtime loss to Slovenia and a 2-1 win over Slovakia in which he stopped 43 of 47 shots.
“I’m pretty proud of my career,” the 31-year-old Zapolski said prior to the team leaving for Pyeongchang. “I think my career has been a little bit different than a lot of guys. It’s taken me a little longer to get to where my career is now, but I got into a Division I program as a walk-on and had to earn my way. I’ve always had to work a little harder than the other guy.”
Of all the teams in the tournament, certainly among those in the hockey world’s big six powers, USA probably has more of a hodge-podge roster than any other team. It has a greybeard and former NHLer and Stanley Cup champion in captain Brian Gionta at one end of the spectrum and four college players, including a 20-year-old Troy Terry, at the other and almost everything in between. It’s not a team that looks on paper as though it should be a serious medal contender, but nobody expected much from a bunch of college kids in 1980, either. And handicapping this tournament is a mug’s game to start with, so who really knows what this team is capable of accomplishing?
And what is Zapolski capable of accomplishing? Well, it’s interesting to note that he’s 31 and playing in Jokerit, which is exactly the age and team Tim Thomas was playing for when he got a shot at full-time employment with the Boston Bruins. That might not happen, but if Zapolski gets white-hot and leads USA to a gold medal, it might be enough to get him noticed. To be sure he’d be a household name. And we’re already learning a little more about him. He didn’t start playing hockey until he was 12 and didn’t really get serious about the game until his teens, which would explain why he’s such a late-bloomer.
“I know not many people know me, especially in North America,” Zapolski said. “I’m a little better known in Finland and in Europe. I think it’s a great opportunity for our whole team. If we’re successful and we can play well, people are going to know who we are, but that’s not really the concern. We’re just going over to play hockey and whatever happens, happens.”
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