Why I Love Olympic Hockey Without NHLers

Uncle Sam’s Men’s Olympic Hockey Team plays its opening game against Slovenia on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

From the get-go, when the NHL announced it would not be sending players to The Winter Games, controversy has enveloped the decision to use the non-big leaguers.

Nevertheless, the American players will go for the Gold in the South Korean arena called Kwandong Hockey Centre in the town of Gangneung. The game’s opening puck will drop at 7:10 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

Because the big leaguers are not involved, some critics have derided the American roster for having a bunch of “No-Names,” as if that’s a basis for putting a knock on the squad.

The Maven‘s counter-argument is that having lesser-known players sets the stage for what could be a melodramatic upset as I’ve seen in the past. Consider the following:

Squaw Valley, 1960.
Lake Placid, 1980.

Just the sound of them gives me the feel of delightful goose pimples.

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Some of the world’s best Olympic hockey was played in each of those venues and two of the greatest player and team stories ever told emerged from California during the 1960 games and New York 20 years later. That’s why I’m not dismayed that National Hockey League players are not participating in the current Winter Olympics.

The big leaguers belong right here in the thrilling homestretch where the games now count most; not somewhere in South Korea.

I prefer not hearing words disparaging “No-Names” trying to win the Winter Games.

There were No-Names in 1960. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone but his teammates knew a thing about Jack McCartan when the tournament began and was eventually won by the Good Old USA.

Jumping’ Jack’s histrionics in goal were responsible for the American Gold and, virtually overnight, McCartan was sought by some NHL clubs.

The Rangers got to Jack first and the next thing you knew he made his NHL debut at The Garden against Gordie Howe‘s Detroit Red Wings.

“Getting the Rangers offer,” McCartan told me, “was the thrill of my life. Naturally, I accepted because it was the NHL. I was up against players like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, and all the great Montreal players.”

The date was March 6, 1960. I was there that night at The Old Garden. In the first minute of play, the immortal Howe broke through the Rangers defense and went one-on-one with McCartan. Jack not only stoned Mister Hockey with a brilliant save but went on to beat Detroit, 3-1.

McCartan wasn’t the only 1960 No-Name to reach the NHL. Tommy Williams was another, signing with the Boston Bruins and later playing for the Minnesota North Stars, California Golden Seals and Washington Capitals.

Both McCartan and Williams are members of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.

The vice was versa again in 1980 when a then-unknown coach named Herb Brooks prepared a roster of amateur “No-Names” to compete again loaded teams led by the Soviet Union.

On defense, there were the likes of Ken Morrow and Jack O’Callahan while up front Brooks employed Mark Johnson, Mark Pavelich, Dave Christian and Neal Broten, among others.

Better remembered than their 1960 brethren, Herbie’s sextet went on to pull off “The Miracle On Ice,” defeating the Soviets and then Finland to capture the Gold.
As a result, the entire 1980 team was inducted into the U.S. Hall of Fame.

LAKE PLACID, NY – FEB 22: Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men’s Ice Hockey event at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980. The game was dubbed “the Miracle on Ice”. The USA went on to win the gold medal by defeating Finland 4-2 in the gold medal game. (Photo by Steve Powell /Getty Images)

Morrow, among others who went from “No-Names” to stardom, helped the Islanders win four straight Stanley Cups and 19 consecutive playoff series.

Meanwhile, coach Brooks eventually moved up to the NHL, coaching the Rangers, Devils, North Stars and Penguins.

Although Uncle Sam’s 1984 amateur Olympic team failed to capture the Gold, under Brooklyn-born coach Lou Vairo, it too converted “No-Names” into stars.

They included Eddie Olczyk, who played for the Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup-winning team, Pat LaFontaine, who starred for the Islanders and Sabres as well as Chris Chelios who defended for Montreal, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta, among other solid skaters.

LaFontaine and Chelios were later inducted into both the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and as well as the U.S. version in Eveleth, Minnesota.

Uncle Sam’s latest non-NHL edition does, in fact, feature some former NHL players like ex-Devil-Canadien-Sabre Brian Gionta.

As a former big-leaguer, Gionta — who won a Stanley Cup on the 2003 Devils — understands how NHL stars such as Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg are upset about not being involved in the current games.

“I feel for the NHL guys for sure,” Gionta told Josh Cooper of The Hockey News. “It’s everybody’s dream to play in the Olympics.

“The NHL guys are disappointed because they wanted to be a part of it, but it’s out of your control.”

Captain of the American team, Gionta feels as if his career is restored to life. “The one thing that’s eluded to me is an Olympic medal,” he added. “I’d love nothing more than to accomplish that.”

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 01: Head coach Tony Granato of the USA men’s hockey team looks on as team USA captain Brian Gionta speaks to the media during the second intermission of the 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field on January 1, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

The U.S.A. Men’s team also has other former NHL players with Olympic eligibility. They include ex-Ranger defenseman Matt Gilroy of North Bellmore, Long Island, and backliner James Wisniewski, who played for the Lightning during their most recent run to the Stanley Cup Final.

But the majority aren’t names you’d immediately know.

That said, it doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of doing precisely what Jack McCartan did 58 years ago nor the miracle performed by Herb Brooks and Company 38 years past.

When I ask Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella before Tuesday’s Islanders-Blue Jackets game how he felt whether NHL players should be in the Olympics, he was emphatic in saying that it should only be for amateurs only.

“I always felt the hockey side should be like the Summer Games when there should only be amateurs playing. That what it was meant to be and that’s the way I think it should be.”

And that’s why I’m delighted that the major leaguers will play out their homestretch without a momentum-stopping three-week break.

And that the “No-Names” will get a chance to make names for themselves in South Korea!