NHL player-free U.S. Olympic men's hockey team features youngest roster in decades

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GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 14: Brian O'Neill #9 of the United States celebrates after scoring a goal.
Brian O'Neill, center, celebrates after scoring against Slovenia in the 2018 Winter Olympics. O'Neill is the only returning player from the 2018 Olympic team competing that will be competing on the U.S. men's hockey team in Beijing next month. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

With NHL players skipping the Beijing Games because of COVID concerns, USA Hockey chose to construct the men’s Olympic hockey roster around 15 college players, many of them top NHL prospects. The team’s average age of 25.1 will make this the youngest U.S. men’s Olympic hockey squad since the 1994 team, which had an average age of 22.4.

The roster, announced on Thursday, also includes eight players based in Europe and two who play in the American Hockey League.

NHL players participated in five straight Olympics, starting in 1998, but the league wouldn't let them compete in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The U.S. team, which leaned heavily on pros who were playing in Europe, finished seventh. Russia, able to draw players from its strong domestic league, the Kontinental Hockey League , won the gold medal.

The NHL agreed to pause its season to allow players to compete in Beijing but withdrew its permission last month in response to the worldwide COVID surge. USA Hockey had anticipated that possibility and did its homework scouting collegians.

“We know that these players all have speed, tenacity and aggressiveness, which is going to be the style of play that we built this team around,” Olympic team general manager John Vanbiesbrouck said during a webinar.

Center Brendan Brisson of Manhattan Beach and the University of Michigan, who was chosen by Vegas in the first round of the 2020 NHL draft, center Matty Beniers of Michigan, who was selected No. 2 by Seattle in 2021, and top college hockey scorer Nathan Smith of Minnesota State are among the youngsters featured on the Beijing roster.

Practice time will be scarce. Some players will go to Beijing directly from Europe but most will meet in Los Angeles to take a flight that's due to arrive in Beijing early on Feb. 4. The men’s Olympic tournament is scheduled to begin on Feb. 9 and the U.S. will play its first game the next day, against host China. Games will be played on NHL-size rinks instead of wider international ice. Former New York Rangers coach David Quinn, who was invited to the U.S. Olympic trials as a player in 1987 but suffered a leg injury, will be the coach.

The absence of NHL players means Beijing won’t be a best-on-best competition, but it could appeal to fans as a preview of future stars. The U.S. men’s team hasn’t won Olympic gold since Herb Brooks’ 1980 squad — largely built around college kids — upset the Soviet Union and defeated Finland at Lake Placid, N.Y.

“I think that while for a long time everybody was pitching the NHL going to the Olympics, the reality of it — and we’re living through new realities — I say that this is a fantastic opportunity for whoever is going to be going to the Olympics. This is our Olympic team and we are going there to represent our country. I don’t know that we have to sell that,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “For some, they wanted to swim over there to play on this team and I think that it’s a time of opportunity, and that’s what this game is made of, opportunity.”

Former Kings forward Nick Shore, now playing for Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL, made the team. So did defenseman Brock Faber, who was chosen 45th by the Kings in the 2020 draft. “It’s kind of like putting a band together,” Quinn said. "You don’t pick five lead singers when you’re putting a band together. You’re trying to put a team together, and that certainly was our mindset when we were going through this process.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.