January 2, 2018 / 12:45 AM / 2 months ago

Without NHL players, Team USA hockey looks to Europe

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stanley Cup winner Brian Gionta will captain a U.S. men’s Olympic ice hockey team made up of players from European leagues or the North American development ranks at next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Gionta, who has played 15 years in the NHL, was named on Monday amongst more than a dozen little-known Americans playing professionally in Europe, along with a hodgepodge of minor leaguers and ex-NHL players for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics.

He is the only player in the squad to have previous Olympic experience, having played for the U.S. at the 2006 Games in Turin and is well aware the team has precious little time together to try and challenge for a medal in Pyeongchang.

“The biggest challenge is getting the team to gel together as quick as possible,” Gionta, who won a Stanley Cup in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils, told reporters on Monday.

“We have four practices or so before we come together and start competing in games.”

Next month’s Olympics are the first since 1994 not to include players from the National Hockey League.

The league said last April it would not release players after failing to reach a deal with the International Olympic Committee to cover players’ travel and insurance costs.

The NHL also were unhappy with the prospect of a nearly three-week interruption to the regular season schedule.

USA Hockey named the bulk of their squad during the NHL’s Winter Classic New Year’s Day game between the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

Jan 1, 2018; Queens, NY, USA; Team USA hockey Olympic player Brian Gionta speaks at a press conference during the second period in the 2018 Winter Classic hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Most are drawn from leagues around Europe, with a few playing in the U.S. minors and former NHL players like Gionta.

Only four come from the college ranks, ensuring the team does not mark a full return to the pre-NHL era when the last American team to win gold at the Lake Placid Games in 1980 in the ‘Miracle on Ice’ were predominantly collegiate players.

The 2018 team features many of the players who went to the Deutschland Cup in Germany in October in what amounted to both a trial and their only warm-up games ahead of Pyeongchang.

They lost all of their games against Slovakia, Russia and Germany and were outscored 12-4.

“Obviously from a selection process it’s been a real battle for us,” coach Tony Granato said.

“I think we’ve put together an outstanding group of players that will represent us well come February and give us a great chance to ... compete for a medal.”

The team’s first group game is on Feb. 14 against Slovenia before they face Slovakia on Feb. 16. They also face a stiff challenge on Feb. 17 from an unknown collection of Russians, who will play under the Olympic flag.

The IOC has banned Russia from formal participation for doping violations, but Russian athletes deemed to be drug-free can compete independently.

“Any time you play a Russian team you expect high skill and expect to see extremely talented players,” Granato said.

“How they put it together and what they do in the next few weeks, we’ll have to keep an eye on, but we’re not going to do anything different as we get ready for the Olympics.”

Editing by Greg Stutchbury

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