Olympic Dream Deferred?
Olympic hockey rosters are now comprised
of pros. So are current collegians missing out on a valuable
The United States’
Miracle on Ice squad of 1980 certainly couldn’t match
the Soviet Union’s experience level, but the Americans
weren’t exactly the neophyte lambs that history has
portrayed them to be either.
Though they were considered amateurs, Team USA
featured no fewer than four players with professional hockey
experience. Among them was former Boston University standout
Mike Eruzione, whose game-winning goal against the Soviets
is forever cemented in international sporting lore. A 25-year-old
at the time, Eruzione actually embarked on his Olympic experience
with two seasons of professional play in the now-defunct International
Hockey League to his credit.
Some accounts suggest that, to maintain these
players’ Olympic eligibility, they were never actually
paid to play by their respective professional teams. Instead,
they were paid as business interns of major corporations that
signed on to support the American hockey cause in the late
1970s. Regardless, whatever compensation may have come their
way failed to make players like Eruzione any less the underdogs
on an international stage that featured galactic Soviet stars
like Makarov, Tretiak and Mikhailov.
|Allowing NHLers like former LSSU
star Brian Rolston to play in the Olympics may help hockey
grow, but the switch may be robbing college hockey players
a prime development opportunity.
Since 1998, when the Olympics became yet another
platform on which NHL stars could perform, the playing field
has become much more level. Some argue that the professionals’
involvement contradicts the Olympic spirit. Others see it
as a vital component in growing the game’s mainstream
acceptance. One thing that can’t be denied is that American
college players have lost a key developmental venue, so long
as NHL players continue to compete on the Olympic stage.
“There’s no question about it, the
experience of playing in an Olympic year is invaluable,”
said former Harvard star Scott Fusco, who used a solid performance
at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games as a springboard to an 81-point,
All-America junior year with the Crimson in 1984-85.
“After having played in the Olympics,
my progress was much more consistent,” said Fusco. “The
biggest thing I learned was how hard (world-class) players
worked in games and in practice to get better.”
Fusco continued to draw on those lessons throughout
the remainder of his collegiate career, claiming the Hobey
Baker Memorial Award with a 68-point senior campaign. Would
he have evolved as rapidly without the Olympic crucible? Proponents
of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior
Championship might argue that he would have indeed. Fusco
himself credits the event sincerely, having skated for the
Americans in during his freshman season at Harvard.
“Playing in the world juniors really opened
my eyes to what (considerable) talent was out there and how
I stacked up against it – surprisingly well as it turned
out,” he said. “That gave me a lot of confidence
back at college. It was an instrumental step in my development.”
Gino Gasparini shares that perspective. The
legendary former North Dakota head coach now presides over
the United States’ top junior league, giving him the
perfect perch from which to observe American hockey development.
He has mixed feelings about professional involvement in the
Olympics, but there’s nothing mixed about his endorsement
of the World Junior Championship. In his mind, an NHL-fed
Olympics adds even more shine to the WJC.
“Certainly for people involved with college
or junior hockey, there would be more attachment to the Olympics
under the previous status, but the professionals’ Olympic
involvement has enhanced our attachment to the World Junior
Championship, which is a good thing,” he said.
A major benefit of the WJC, at least for college
coaches, is that, in many ways, the event is less invasive
than the Olympics. Fusco missed an entire season at Harvard
to prepare for Team USA’s Olympic sojourn and Gasparini
regularly lost players to both the American and Canadian Olympic
“It was a given in those days, so it wasn’t
surprising to us,” said Gasparini. “But you can
never prepare for those events.
“I had a different perspective than some.
I always encouraged those players to go because it only happened
once in a lifetime. They had the opportunity to play for a
Can the WJC fill that role? Should it? That’s
the debate. But certainly there is nothing quite like the
Olympics to accelerate a young player’s development.
“I kind of liked it the old way. It gave
amateur players a lot of goals to shoot for early in their
careers. That process is delayed now,” said Fusco.
“Hockey-wise, the world juniors and the
Olympics are similar in a lot of ways,” he added. “The
countries were the same, the styles were the same. But in
another sense, it was totally different. You were dealing
with guys who have been there for years and years. It was
a huge step.”