GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The members of the U.S. men’s hockey team skated onto the ice at the Gangneung Hockey Centre a few at a time, emerging from the first locker room they have ever shared, in white and gray and blue jerseys that didn’t bear their names. Some of them have played together elsewhere, some of them have not. A few players, including elder statesman and NHL veteran Brian Gionta, ran into travel trouble and arrived during Friday’s practice.
On Wednesday, that group will play a game in the 2018 Olympic tournament, with a whole 6 hours 15 minutes of officially sanctioned practice together. Many of their opponents will have played together for weeks or months. The recipe for chemistry normally includes a longer cook time.
The players tried to hasten the process. Defenseman Matt Gilroy and forward Brian O’Neill organized a group chat on WhatsApp, where the players — many of whom had never met each other — could get a head start on their inevitable locker room ribbings.
The men who built this team did all they could to account for that time crunch, too, Coach Tony Granato said. He and his handpicked coaching staff watched hours of film, built plans, learned tendencies. They passed the plans along to the players, who arrived in PyeongChang with an idea of which line they might play on or who might be their defensive partner. By the time the players began their passing drills, breakouts and brief scrimmage Friday, the on-ice part of the plan had long since been clear.
But the larger plan, the vision for this American team cobbled together without the help of its most high-profile NHL stars, came from General Manager Jim Johannson. His intimate knowledge of American players abroad or not yet in the NHL dictated the selection process. He and Granato were in constant contact about strategy, texting and calling daily for months. Then, on Jan. 21, Johannson died unexpectedly. The man who had pulled it all together, the one who maintained the firmest belief in the potential of his unlikely coalition, was gone.
“The real challenges came when we lost Jimmy. He meant everything to organizing, planning,” Granato said. “. . . This is his project.”
Johannson had been the man to call each and every player and tell him he made the Olympic team. He was the one who vouched for all of them, followed their careers from afar and stayed in touch. Every member of the team felt his loss.
They dedicated a locker stall to him in their locker room. They have T-shirts with “JJ” on them, and each is carrying a coin that says the same. In the loss of Johannson, they have found common ground and inspiration.
Many of the players on this team didn’t need much inspiration. Some are in college. Others are older, former high-rising stars who saw NHL opportunities slip away and were forced to resurrect their careers in Europe and elsewhere.
“This is a second lease on life for our hockey careers, and I think we’re all re-energized by that. Most of us have been in Europe, and our careers have been up and down,” O’Neill said. “We’ve faced some lows and we’ve faced some highs, but this is definitely the biggest high for a lot of us. . . . We were given an opportunity that we never expected, and I think that’s an advantage to us because I think it’ll take a little bit of pressure off us and we can all enjoy it and relish the opportunity.”
The Americans showed signs of rust and a lack of familiarity Friday, with passes too far behind or too far ahead, and slow-to-develop rushes that could have benefited from better spacing. But they also showed flashes of coalescence, with a few pinpoint passes threaded to well-positioned skaters who pushed them safely home. If adversity can provide a catalyst for chemistry off the ice, nothing can replace the benefits of time together on it.
“The coaches have done a really good job of preparing us, so when we get here we already know what’s going to happen. A lot of us know who we’re going to play with. The systems are already in place,” O’Neill said. “. . . You’re just reinforcing fundamentals in our system. We know what’s going to go on.”
Granato urged his players to spend as much time as they can together. He wouldn’t go with them to the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night. That, he said, would be their time to be together. Three weeks from now, their time together will be over. Many pundits predict that time will not end on the podium. Bonded by the rush, they are hurrying to prove those pundits wrong.