Opportunity Knocks

U.S. Men Give It All They Have In Memory Of Their Fallen Friend

It's been said many times that you play for the crest on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back. 

That wasn't entirely true for the 25 men who proudly wore the USA uniform on Olympic ice. They were also playing for the name on the back of the jersey that hung in an empty stall inside their locker room inside the Gangneung Hockey Centre.

It was part of a solemn tribute to the man whose vision was the driving force that brought together these players and coaching staff. 

As they prepared for their first practice together as the U.S. Men's Olympic Team, each player quietly sat staring at the makeshift shrine, thinking back to the first time they met Jim Johannson and how it changed their lives. 

 "He cared about the person you were first, and that goes a long way," said Jonathan Blum, who was wearing the colors for the fifth time.

"We wanted to play our best for him because he believed in every one of us. We wanted to go out and make him proud."

Johannson, the general manager of the team who had put his heart and soul into USA Hockey for the last 17 years, passed away suddenly on Jan. 21 at the age of 53.

And so it was, with heavy hearts and a fierce determination to show the world the same traits that Johannson saw in each of them that this team of relatively unknowns set out to honor their fallen friend by bringing home an Olympic medal.

Leading the charge was longtime friend and former Olympic teammate, Tony Granato, who made sure everyone knew whose handiwork it was that brought them all here to South Korea.

"Jimmy did everything to put this thing together. This was his project," Granato said after the team's first practice. "Now it's our job to recognize those wishes and carry them out in the best interest of our program and the best interest of Jimmy's legacy."

To those who knew him, that legacy was about giving American players the opportunity to represent their country on the international stage. And no stage is bigger than the Olympics.

When the NHL opted not to send its best to PyeongChang, it was time for Johannson to dip a little deeper into the ever-expanding U.S. talent pool. Critics scoffed when the final roster featured a number of players who were unknown or long forgotten by all but the most strident hockey fans. But Johannson, a walking Wikipedia of American hockey talent, would cast a wry smile as the skeptics spoke, as if only he knew the punchline to an inside joke.

"JJ always phrased it as this was our second lease on life or our second lease on hockey. I think we were all re-energized by that," said Brian O'Neill, who was plucked from Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League. 

"We've faced some lows and we've faced some highs, and this is definitely the biggest high for a lot of us. We've been given an opportunity that we never expected and we're going to enjoy it and relish the opportunity."

That's just what they did, from the equipment managers to the trainers, the coaching staff and all 25 players in the U.S. locker room. They went toe-to-toe with the best teams in the tournament and came within an eyelash of playing for an Olympic medal. As the upstart Germans showed in their historic silver-medal march, a bounce here and a break there and USA Hockey could easily be celebrating two gold medal teams.

For the veteran players in the room, their Olympic experience was a chance to show the hockey world that they still have  a lot of blade left on their skates. One of them was captain Brian Gionta, the only player on the team with Olympic experience, who caught the eye of the Boston Bruins who were looking for veteran leadership for the stretch run to the playoffs. 

"It's always your goal to play in the NHL and it's always your dream to play in an Olympic Games," said Jim Slater, a 10-year NHL veteran now playing in Germany. "You never think it's going to happen, especially when you get to my age and you're playing overseas for three years. 

"It's been the pinnacle of my career to play in an Olympic Games. To get that chance from JJ, from the management and from USA Hockey, I owe a lot to them. This is something that I will never ever forget, that's for sure."

As for the college kids on the team, it didn't take long for them to show that they weren't just along for the ride. Ryan Donato quickly became the talk of the tournament as he surpassed his father Ted's Olympic goal scoring mark with five, and Troy Terry proved that he could play with the big boys.

"I think the biggest question for me was could I play with the bigger, older guys," said Terry, who has Anaheim Ducks fans counting the days until he graduates from the University of Denver.

"Obviously I still have some development to do, physically and strength wise, but it's been proven to me that I'm ready to play at this level."

And as quickly as they came together, it was over in the flick of a lone Czech stick in the quarterfinal shootout loss. Unfortunately, for a team of players who were given a second chance thanks to the man who believed in them, there are no second chances for an Olympic medal. All they were left with were the memories of proudly representing the red, white and blue on the biggest stage in the sport, and the friendships they made along the way. And in many ways that was worth its weight in gold.

"If you were in our locker room you wouldn't know that we've only been together for two weeks. We came together really quick and we battled together until the end," Terry said in summing up the Olympic experience. "It's not the ending we wanted but when I look back I have a whole locker room of brothers that I didn't have two weeks ago."

And that would make Jim Johannson very proud indeed.

 

Issue: 
2018-03

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