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USA Hoping Youth Brings Home Another Olympic Miracle

Team USA chose to forge a different path by taking a roster loaded with NCAA stars to Beijing. Will it pay off? Who knows. But this group is sure to excite, and it may just have a miracle up its sleeve.
Matt Beniers

As one of the most powerful men in the game, Pat Brisson takes a lot of calls from a lot of teams about a lot of clients. Many of those conversations come bearing good news, others not so much. But when he picked up the phone in early January with U.S. Olympic team GM John Vanbiesbrouck at the other end of the line, it was a call like no other. 

“You think maybe there’s a chance, but you don’t want to get your hopes up,” Brisson said. “Then you get that call. I was speechless, to be honest.” You must know that rendering the game’s most influential player agent speechless is a near-impossible feat. Confirmed.

But you can’t blame Brisson for getting a little choked up, considering the client in question was his 20-year-old son, Brendan, a sophomore at the University of Michigan. And the call was to let him know that Brendan had been one of 15 college players chosen to the 2022 U.S. Olympic team. (Actually, NCAA rules prevent Brendan Brisson from having an agent, but players can retain the services of a ‘family advisor.’ You can really trust your family advisor when he’s, you know, part of the family and all.)

When the puck drops and the American team begins its demolition of China on Feb. 10, Brisson will be 20 years and 112 days old. And do you know what’s nuts? There will be five guys on the team who are younger than him. Vanbiesbrouck joked that there were players “who would swim over there to be on this team.” And there are a bunch of them who probably actually could.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took a turn for the worse – again – and brought the hockey world to its knees – again – the Big 6 countries had to pivot fast and come up with new rosters. So Vanbiesbrouck and coach David Quinn looked at the players they had available to them and came to the conclusion they were going to go young. Like, crazy young. 

How young is this team? Well, Quinn remembers watching Team USA’s unforgettable win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics as a 14-year-old who watched the game at his buddy Jack Capuano’s house. The guys on this team only know the Miracle on Ice by the movie. Not the one with Karl Malden playing Herb Brooks and Steve Guttenberg portraying Jim Craig, either. Their only connection to the 1980 team is through Kurt Russell and Eddie Cahill. And they watch it on their computers, too. “Ever since I was in first grade, you get those little sheets and it’s like, ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ ” said Matty Beniers, the Michigan sophomore who, at 19 years and 98 days, will be the youngest player to play for a U.S. Olympic team since 1984. “And it’s Miracle every single time.”

When the 1980 squad hit the ice in Lake Placid for their first game against Sweden, which ended in a 2-2 tie, they had an average age of 22 years and 165 days. Forty-two years later, a group with an average age of 25 years and 355 days will try to duplicate that feat. From Beniers to goalie Pat Nagle, who checks in as the oldest player on the team at 34 years and 143 days, the Americans are either really young or pretty old. Not a lot of in-between with this group. And who knows how this group will perform? Maybe it will get slaughtered. That’s what they thought back in 1980, too.

But if you want to make a more direct parallel, a more apt one might be Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Canada rolled over everybody, and Team Europe was a nice little story, but there was nothing more memorable about that rather forgettable tournament than watching the swashbuckling 23-and-under kids whiz around the rink and amaze with their speed and skill. Of course, that team didn’t win anything, largely because the coaching staff neglected to tell them that they needed to beat Sweden in regulation and not in overtime in their last game. With the field for the gold medal as wide open as it has ever been, the Americans will be, if nothing else, must-watch viewing. Those disappointed by the lack of NHLers suddenly have a reason to tune in.

“I think that’s a great comparison,” said Jake Sanderson, a 19-year-old sophomore defenseman from the University North Dakota and a future Ottawa Senator. “I think we’re just a handful of young guys just blessed and ready to get the opportunity to play. We’ll give it our all when we’re over there. We’ll be that young team that everybody is watching and hopefully cheering for because everyone thought the NHL was going to be there, but here are these college kids who are getting an opportunity to play in something really special.”

Should this group manage to win a gold medal, the team party when they get back home could be a little problematic, given that eight of them are too young to drink in their own country. Maybe they’ll all crash a frat party and do keg stands. More likely, though, they’ll either go back to school or straight to the NHL, where they’ll begin what they hope are long and productive careers. With an Olympic experience already on their resumes, they’ll be all the better prepared when the NHL actually returns to the Olympics in 2026 and (we can only hope) beyond that. 

But Vanbiesbrouck and Quinn are in it to win it, and they took the players they did because they truly believe the group gives Team USA its best chance in 2022. Former NHLer Bobby Ryan has been skating and training in Nashville and wanted badly to be part of the team, but he wasn’t selected. Guys like Jordan Schroeder and Reid Boucher have been kicking around the KHL the past couple of years, and Jeremy Bracco is tearing it up in Germany. They might have been safer choices, but if you’re going to go with young guys, you might as well pick the top grads of your own development program – kids who have grown up playing with and against each other for years and have worn the Red, White and Blue in competition hundreds of times by now.

“This is for the here and now,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Not once were we thinking of the distant future. We responded quickly. We picked a path and a core group that we wanted to go with that had the speed, the tenacity that could get us to a gold medal. Everything about this process is hard and everything about what we’re going to do is going to be hard. Nothing is easy, and I think these young players are equipped to do that.”

Back in 1980, apart from Bob Suter from Wisconsin, every player on the roster came from the 3-M states of Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. This time around, Nate Smith was born in Florida, Matthew Knies is from Phoenix and Sanderson, the son of Canadian-born former NHLer Geoff, took his first tentative steps on the ice in Montana before moving to Calgary. This team is a triumph of many things – the larger imprint hockey has made on the landscape in the United States, USA Hockey’s attempts to reach all corners of the country, the U.S. National Team Development Program and the high quality of play in college hockey. “I think it’s awesome, and it speaks volumes to how good college hockey is,” Beniers said. “There’s a lot of great players. It’s tough, it’s big, it’s fast, it’s hard, and I think it prepares you well for the next level.”

So here they are, Team USA’s students of the game – the 15 NCAA players who will pull on the Stars and Stripes in Beijing. They are accompanied by sweater number, position, school and age (years/days) on the first day of the Olympics:

4 – Drew Helleson, D, Boston College, (20 years, 321 days): A key member of the team that won the gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championship, Helleson is a solid defensive defender who can move the puck. Think Ken Morrow. NHL rights: Colorado.

6 – Nick Perbix, D, St. Cloud State, (23 years, 241 days): At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Perbix will be the tallest and one of the heaviest players on the team. This is the first time he’s represented the U.S. in a major international competition. NHL rights: Tampa Bay.

8 – Jake Sanderson, D, North Dakota (19 years, 187 days): The fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft is a stud in every sense of the word. He possesses elite-level skating and is starting to show an offensive side to his game. He’ll get a heavy workload with this team. NHL rights: Ottawa.

10 – Matty Beniers, C, Michigan (19 years, 98 days): With an appearance for the bronze-medal winning squad at last year’s World Championship, Beniers is a two-way force who probably could have played in the NHL this season had he not decided to go back to Michigan. He is a coach’s dream. NHL rights: Seattle.

12 – Sam Hentges, C, St. Cloud State (22 years, 200 days): A bit of a surprise choice in that injuries have limited him to only seven games this season. But he has nine points in those seven games, and his speed will likely translate well to fourth-line duty. He’s a late-bloomer. Only seven players were taken after him in the 2018 draft. NHL rights: Minnesota.

13 – Nathan Smith, RW, Minnesota State (23 years, 116 days): The top scorer in college hockey so far this season, Smith is the best player on the team that has consistently been ranked No. 1 through most of 2021-22. It will be interesting to see if he signs with the Winnipeg Jets after this season. If he doesn’t, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. NHL rights: Winnipeg.

14 – Brock Faber, D, Minnesota (19 years, 173 days): Talk to anyone in the Los Angeles Kings’ development department and they’ll rave about this young man. His skating and his ability to read the ice set him apart. NHL rights: Los Angeles.

16 – Nick Abruzzese, LW, Harvard (22 years, 252 days): With five goals and 21 points in just 13 games through mid-January, Abruzzese led the country in points per game. He didn’t play all of last season because the Ivy League schools sat out the season, but it doesn’t appear to have affected his scoring touch. NHL rights: Toronto.

19 – Brendan Brisson, C, Michigan (20 years, 112 days): A player who scores goals just as well as he sets them up, Brisson has been a consistent offensive contributor in his two seasons at Michigan. He’s a California kid with a Quebec mindset. NHL rights: Vegas.

25 – Marc McLaughlin, C, Boston College (22 years, 200 days): Probably the most responsible defensive forward on the team, McLaughlin is one of the captains at BC, and coaches love his approach to the game. He might have to move to the wing and play the fourth line, but he’ll do it with enthusiasm. NHL rights: Free agent.

26 – Sean Farrell, LW, Harvard (20 years, 101 days): The USHL’s top scorer and MVP last season, Farrell would have been at Harvard in 2020-21 if not for the pandemic. He’s continuing his offensive ways at Harvard, sitting just two points behind teammate Abruzzese. NHL rights: Montreal.

27 – Noah Cates, LW, Minnesota-Duluth (23 years, 6 days): Projected to be in the bottom six, Cates has shown some offensive flashes but is considered more of a defensive player. He’s another senior who could become a UFA if he doesn’t sign after this season. NHL rights: Philadelphia.

29 – Drew Commesso, G, Boston University, (19 years, 207 days): Commesso would have been the No. 1 goalie for Team USA at the world juniors this year. He’ll likely start the tournament as the third goalie on the depth chart. NHL rights: Chicago.

39 – Ben Meyers, LW, Minnesota, (23 years, 88 days): Meyers will almost certainly be the most coveted college free agent in the country, despite the fact he could go back to the University of Minnesota next season if he so chooses. That likely won’t happen. NHL rights: Free agent.

89 – Matthew Knies, C, Minnesota (19 years, 117 days): The second-youngest player on the roster, Knies is scoring at a point-per-game pace as a true freshman at Minnesota. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he’ll be among the biggest forwards on the team. NHL rights: Toronto.

No team will be as young, unpredictable or intriguing to watch as the United States of America in Beijing. This will be fun. Will the Americans win a gold medal? Who knows. Do you believe in miracles? 

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