Beijing Winter Olympics to showcase hockey’s next generation

Nashville Predators right wing Eeli Tolvanen, left, collides with Buffalo Sabres goaltender Aaron Dell during the second period on Jan. 13 in Nashville, Tenn. Tolvanen, the brother of former Northern Michigan University goaltender Atte Tolvanen, played in the 2018 Winter Olymics for Finland. (AP file photo)

The disappointment of the NHL not participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics quickly turned to excitement for a handful of U.S. players at the world junior championship.

Matty Beniers, Jake Sanderson and Brock Faber were together in Red Deer, Alberta, when USA Hockey’s John Vanbiesbrouck asked them to go to Beijing.

“I was kind of blown out of my shoes,” Beniers said.

All three said yes. While Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon will not get the chance to play in their first Olympics, the men’s hockey tournament in Beijing could be a showcase for the next generation of talent, with 2021 top pick Owen Power expected to suit up for Canada and Beniers, Sanderson and Faber among eight U.S. players under the age of 21.

“NHL players won’t be there, but it’s still going to be some pretty good hockey and it’ll be really fun,” Sanderson said. “There’s going to be really good talent there. To play with Matty and Brock Faber (and goalie) Drew Commesso, I’m super excited.”

The precedent is there for the youngest players to be among the best at the Olympics.

When the NHL decided not to send players to Pyeongchang in 2018, it gave Russian sniper Kirill Kaprizov, Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen and winger Eeli Tolvanen, and American forwards Troy Terry, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway opportunities to stand out. Kaprizov and Tolvanen were the second- and third-leading scorers in that tournament, while Donato led the U.S. in goals and Terry in assists.

While Russia, Finland and other European teams are going with mostly older rosters from professional leagues, the U.S. figured the kids are all right: 15 of the 25 players named to the team are currently in college, including 13 who have already been drafted by an NHL team.

Vanbiesbrouck said the young players will have an immediate impact on the team. Columbus Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson, who broadcasted five Olympics, figures the next step is the NHL.

“You never know: They could be here next year or the following year,” Davidson said. “This is a stage for them.”

It’s also something of a do-over after the world juniors played around Christmas were canceled midstream because of virus concerns. That tournament was shut down roughly a week after the NHL withdrew from Beijing, so the opportunity snatched away became more motivation for Beniers, Sanderson, Faber and Commesso to commit to the Olympics.

“One door closes and another opens,” said Beniers, who is expected to be the youngest player in the tournament. “Something that not many people get the chance to participate in.”

Participating in 2018 did wonders for the likes of Terry, Greenway and Kaprizov. Terry leads the Anaheim Ducks in goals and points this season, while Kaprizov is teammates with Greenway on the Wild and is tops on Minnesota in scoring.


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