Drew Commesso, Brendan Brisson, Aaron Ness, Andrew Miele and Benjamin Meyers try on clothes during Team USA athlete processing ahead of Beijing 2022 on Jan. 31, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
If you want to see the impact that a college sport can have on an Olympic program, look no further than the U.S. men’s hockey team, which will put its most youthful group on the ice in nearly three decades at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
All 25 members of the U.S. team are products of NCAA college hockey. In fact, 15 of them are current student-athletes. With an average age of just over 25 years, this is the youngest U.S. men’s hockey team since 1994, when players averaged just over 22 years.
The U.S. was forced to embrace college players more fully in 2022 when the NHL opted out of sending its players to the Games because of issues related to COVID-19. Although the college-heavy team might bring back memories of the famous 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team made up of college players, this year’s tournament is by no means amateur.
With NHL players out for the second Olympics in a row, the Americans will be skating against more experienced opponents in Beijing, many of whom play professionally in Europe.
The young U.S. team will be seeking the country’s first men’s medal in the sport since winning silver in 2010. John Vanbiesbrouck, the U.S. general manager, sounded optimistic in a story on the USA Hockey website.
“We’re excited about the roster we’ve put together,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “The Olympics are the biggest stage in sports, and it was fun to hear the enthusiasm our players have to represent their country.
“We’re fortunate to have a deep talent pool — thanks in part to all the great work of our volunteers in communities across the nation — and with the mix of players who are part of our team, we’re looking forward to competing for a gold medal in Beijing.”
Among that talent pool are five teenagers, all of whom are currently playing in college.
Team USA’s youngest player, 19-year-old forward Matty Beniers of the University of Michigan, is a top NHL prospect, having been selected No. 2 by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 draft. The other teenagers on Team USA are defensemen Jake Sanderson (University of North Dakota) and Brock Faber (University of Minnesota), goaltender Drew Commesso (Boston University) and forward Matt Knies (University of Minnesota).
“It speaks volumes to how good college hockey is, and not just one league: It’s pretty much across three or four different leagues,” Beniers told the Associated Press. “There’s a lot of great players, and college hockey’s really good. I think it gets overlooked sometimes. It’s tough, it’s big, it’s fast, it’s hard and I think it prepares you well for the next level.”
Knies told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Not many kids get this chance to be on an Olympic team and represent USA Hockey,” Knies, a native of Phoenix, said. “When I get that chance, I’m going to take it no matter what the consequences are. I had to jump on this.”
The American skaters hail from 14 NCAA schools, including Boston College (2), Boston University (2), Ferris State University (1), Harvard University (2), Miami University (1), Minnesota State University (1), St. Cloud State University (2), University of Denver (1), University of Michigan (4), University of Minnesota (4), University of Minnesota Duluth (1), University of North Dakota (1), University of Nebraska-Omaha (1) and Yale University (2).
“We’re very fortunately to have good, young players,” Vanbiesbrouck told the AP. “This is for the here and now. Not once were we thinking of a distant future.”
In addition to the current college players, Team USA also called on eight players from the European professional ranks and a pair of skaters from the American Hockey League — all of whom also have college experience on their resumes.
Former Yale Bulldog Brian O’Neill is the lone holdover from the 2018 Olympic team that placed seventh in the tournament. The team’s oldest player is Pat Nagle, a 34-year-old goaltender who plays for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL. He played college hockey at Ferris State in Michigan.
Thirteen states have players on the Olympic roster, led by Minnesota (7), Massachusetts (5) and Michigan (3).
“It’s kind of like putting a band together: You don’t pick five lead singers when you’re putting a band together,” said U.S. coach David Quinn, himself a former NCAA head coach at his alma mater Boston University. “We obviously were a little bit more aware about maybe going a little bit younger, but we wanted to take the best team possible to compete for a gold medal. When we looked at the player pool that was available to us, we thought skill, speed, pace, tempo was going to be the strength of our team.”
The U.S. opens the Olympic tournament Feb. 10 with a preliminary round game at 8:10 a.m. ET against host China at the National Indoor Stadium. USA Network will carry the game.