Olympics can still be fun

A new year has begun and that usually brings a lot of change.

Most changes currently happening are coaching ones, like what the Green Bay Packers are doing right now.

The Packers are dismissing just about any coach on the roster not named Mike McCarthy and are reassigning people in the front office like they’re in a cheese-fueled frenzy.

This massive move isn’t typical of the Packers, so maybe they’re truly trying to get better instead of just saying so.

However, some changes involve going in reverse, maybe to a simpler time, and that’s what will happen with the Winter Olympics in a few weeks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

Since 1998, NHL players have competed in the Winter Olympics for their home countries and it’s added a fun element to the hockey competition which, to some, had grown stale and boring to watch. The U.S. teams have been successful for the most part since then, winning silver medals in 2002 and 2010.

This year’s Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will have a different flavor, though. The NHL decided in April not to let any of its players compete for national teams, so this year’s U.S. roster will be a mix of players competing in foreign leagues, players from the American Hockey League top pro minor league or college hockey.

The lone veteran on the U.S. team is Brian Gionta, who was in the NHL last year with the Buffalo Sabres, but isn’t under contract now. He also was on the U.S. Olympic team at the 2006 Games in Italy and was with the Sabres when they came to Marquette in October 2016 for Kraft Hockeyville USA.

The 23-man roster is currently made up of 14 forwards, eight defensemen and only one goaltender in Ryan Zapolski, but that could change, and by all logic, it needs to.

It’s not just a bunch of scrubs from a pickup game either. It has two good college forwards in Boston University’s Jordan Greenway and Denver’s Troy Terry, both of whom won gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championship last year, with Terry scoring three shootout goals to help beat Russia in the semifinals and another to beat Canada in the final.

Harvard center Ryan Donato and St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen are the other college players, with the rest coming from the AHL or leagues in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany or Russia. Two of the players from overseas, defensemen James Wisniewski and center Jim Slater, have lots of NHL experience with Wisniewski having a big year with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013-14.

None of those names probably will make you eager to tune in, I’ll admit, but that should be a good thing. The Olympics are, at their core, an amateur competition and that’s how hockey used to be before the NHL got involved.

It was just young players trying to represent their country, and for some, maybe trying to extend their careers a little while longer. The last time the U.S. won a gold medal was in 1980 with the famous Miracle on Ice team that shocked the powerful Soviet Union in the semifinals and came from behind to beat Finland for the gold.

That team didn’t have any official professional players and yet still found tremendous success in trying to take down a seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union juggernaut that had won the last four Olympics.

Granted, that was a different time with the Cold War raging and the U.S. trying to prove that its hockey team was still relevant on the international stage, which isn’t a problem these days.

This time around, there isn’t a real enemy to unite the country against (Canada is probably the closest thing), but the amateur status is back. The Olympics aren’t full of multimillionaires this time around, just some guys who are trying to make it big in their favorite sport or achieve an improbable dream.

Superstars like Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel won’t be pumping in goals in South Korea next month and Jonathan Quick and Jimmy Howard won’t be making phenomenal saves. However, there will still be some great talent to watch.

The 1980 gold medal win happened almost 40 years ago. Maybe this year’s squad can do the same thing. It’ll still be exciting, even if it’s not a miracle.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.