The U.S. men's ice hockey team poses for a photo before the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 10, 2018 in Gangeung, South Korea.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Chris Bourque has two goals for this Olympic Winter Games: first, take it all in - and then win.
His father, Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, represented Team Canada at the Nagano 1998 Games. Before Chris left for Korea, Ray had a simple piece of advice.
“He told me just to soak it all in, because it goes by fast. Enjoy your time there,” Chris reflected. But aside from the words of wisdom on what to expect, Chris’ father has also given him a little extra motivation.
“Obviously I want to come home with a medal,” Chris said. “That’s one of the biggest regrets in his career, not coming home with a medal. They lost in the bronze-medal match – so any medal I can bring home is a good one.”
The Borques have good reason for podium expectations: the U.S. has made it to a medal game in three of the last four Olympics.
With current NHL players not in attendance this year, the U.S. men’s ice hockey team has been consistently pegged as an underdog for PyeongChang 2018. Made up of top college and European-based players, the team has a fair few new faces on the roster.
The 1980 U.S. Olympic team is a popular comparison, where a team of collegiate players took on – and defeated – a formidable and heavily favored Soviet Union team in the semifinals, eventually winning the gold medal.
“I think all of our players have seen the movie ‘Miracle,’” head coach Tony Granato noted, referring to the film inspired by the 1980 win. “They all know about the team, they all know who (1980 captain) Mike Eruzione is.”
But he cautions against repeating that narrative.
“To win, we don’t need a miracle. We need to be our best and to play our best for two weeks to win this tournament,” he said. “I think we should be confident in what we’ve done to put this team together and confident in one another to perform.”
After all, while 24 out of the 25 players are making their Olympic debut here in PyeongChang, they are not all new to Team USA. Thirteen of them have represented Team USA at either the IIHF World Championship or World Junior Championship. The U.S. is not the only country to lose its usual, NHL-based roster, but its hockey culture and resulting depth of talent keep it in the running for a spot on the podium.
“If you look at our team and these guys – there’s a lot of talent on the team,” defenseman Noah Welch pointed out.
And with top talent, there also comes the pressure of a top finish - underdogs or not.
“You’re playing for USA Hockey. There’s pressure to win, but it’s a good pressure. You represent a very great hockey country that wants to medal,” Welch said. “I was one of the guys that was chosen to do that task, and so I take that really seriously.”
That’s a common thread throughout the team: they are here to compete, and, hopefully, bring home a medal. Many describe being named to the team as one of the best moments of their careers, and they are hungry to show what they can do on the biggest stage in international hockey.
The key now, they say, is to not get caught up in their own heads.
“Everyone deals with (pressure) differently,” Welch said. “For me, faith is a big part of it. Some guys watch movies to take their mind off of it.”
Once the puck drops, though, hockey is hockey, said defenseman Matt Gilroy. “It’s the same game you played when you were little.”
“In a tournament like this, it’s most effective to worry about what’s in front of you,” explained forward John McCarthy. “You worry about your next shift… everything else that you can’t control, you let it go.”
In the meantime, as they wait for their first game, they turn to those who have been here before for advice on what to do off-ice. Captain Brian Gionta played at Torino 2006, and he has been giving the guys pointers on how to navigate the Olympics. His main advice is much like Ray Bourque’s: enjoy it.
“The biggest thing during this first part is taking in what the Olympics have to offer, attending other events and being a part of it,” he explained.
Family members, too, have echoed the sentiment. Along with Borque’s father, Ryan Donato’s father and Will Gilroy’s father-in-law have both played ice hockey at the Olympics.
“He just wanted me to make sure I took in the experience,” said Donato, speaking of his dad, Ted. Ted played at Albertville 1992, and now coaches Ryan at Harvard. “Obviously, it was one of the greatest experiences he had in hockey and in his lifetime as well. So, I just want to make sure I capture every opportunity I have here and try to remember everything I do.”
Gilroy reiterated that message. His father-in-law, 1976 Olympian John Taft, had emphasized to Gilroy just how unique this opportunity was.
“The hockey is great but the Olympic experience is what’s really special,” Gilroy said. Taft made a career out of hockey, even playing in the NHL, but he found representing his country a top memory from his career. “So his main message was to enjoy it and take it all in. Don’t regret anything, and see every event you can.”
The team has been following that advice quite well so far. Since they arrived late last week, the players have cheered on Team USA in speedskating and at the women’s ice hockey victory against Finland, walked in the Opening Ceremony and sat down to eat with new friends and old buddies alike in the athletes’ village, trying to enjoy all the Olympics can offer.
But now, with tonight’s game against Slovenia, they’ve begun to shift their focus to Borque’s second goal: win.