When Brian Gionta last played in the Olympics in 2006, his final NHL game before the break allowed him just three days to fly to Italy and get acclimated before suiting up for Team USA.
This time around, the semi-retired U.S. captain and his Olympic teammates will get four whole practice days before opening the tournament against Slovenia on Feb. 14.
“With the NHL setup, you fly over there, you have a small window to practice in and then you’re right into the games,” Gionta said. “We’ve had the added benefit of being able to go over to the Deutschland Cup and be together for that week. A lot of the guys that were there are on the team and have a good understanding of each other. But I think that’s a nice change, I guess, from previous Olympics.”
Still, the U.S. lost all three games at that tournament in November and didn’t score more than two goals in any of them. Preparation under a new coach, learning the nuances and habits of new teammates are certainly key, but every men’s hockey team going to South Korea is in a much different situation from any previous Olympics.
Before NHL players began participating in 1998, national teams were centralized and spent months together – much like women’s teams do now. In contrast, the past five Olympics featured quick turnarounds when it came to training because so many players were also in the NHL, which decided this time around not to pause its 82-game regular season.
However, no NHL didn’t automatically translate into more practice time as the teams were put together.
Almost everyone on an Olympic roster is playing professionally or in college, so there isn’t much of an opportunity for training camps – though Canada, Russia and other countries are making the most of any time they have to get together. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League has its final games before the Olympic break Jan. 28, and other European leagues will release players shortly after that so they can prepare.
Chock full of stars from the KHL, including former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, Russia should be the first to have its full team together and will play exhibition games in Moscow on Jan. 30 and Feb. 4. Canada is gathering as many players as possible in Latvia on Jan. 28 and will play two exhibition games there and one more in South Korea before the Olympics begin as it tries to win a third consecutive gold medal.
“We have access to our players very early, and we’re going to take advantage of that,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice president of hockey operations and national teams. “We’re actually going to simulate the first two games of the Olympics with the ice times and the game times and try to get used to that kind of quick turnaround from a 9 p.m. game and a day off and a noon game.”
Sweden, which has a handful of former NHL players and projected 2018 No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin , will gather in Seoul for four days of practice before facing Canada on Feb. 12. The Czech Republic will hold training camp in Prague from Jan. 29-Feb. 6 before practicing in Seoul and playing an exhibition game against Finland on Feb. 11, while the Swiss are scheduled to play Germany in Kloten, Switzerland, on Feb. 6 and Norway in Goyang, South Korea, five days later.
USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson said his team won’t play any exhibition games with most U.S. players arriving in South Korea on Feb. 8. Johannson said the U.S. will practice Feb. 10-13 and get in a game-day skate Feb. 14, which coach Tony Granato feels will be enough preparation.
“We’ve all been parts of multiple tournaments like this, so we’re not unfamiliar with them,” said Granato, who played 49 games with the U.S. national team prior to the 1988 Olympics and currently coaches at the University of Wisconsin. “A lot of the excitement and build-up leading up to it makes it that much better – you’re going to get there, we’re going to jump on the ice, we’re going to practice and then a few days later we’ll be center stage and ready to play.”
Seventeen of the 25 U.S. players were at the Deutschland Cup in November and won’t be back on the ice together until nearly three months later. The U.S. women’s team? They gathered in Florida in September, played a series of games against top Olympic rival Canada and have been together since.
“It’s a huge bonus and a huge advantage to be together all year,” forward Meghan Duggan said. “(It’s ) a difference from a world championship year, a non-Olympic year where we play with our pro teams and our club teams or college teams and get together for certain periods of time whether it be for world championships or Four Nations Cup or training camp.”
Canada’s men’s team took part in several Olympic tune-up tournaments for evaluation purposes. GM Sean Burke, who played in goal for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, is trying to make the most of this hybrid schedule to put coach Willie Desjardins and his team in the best position to succeed.
“We’ve had a lot of time to not only evaluate our players but have them together to do some team-building and we’re going to get a good two-week training camp. I like the process,” Burke said. “Our coaching staff can really get down to working on our systems and having everything in place that they’re comfortable with. That’s a real nice luxury to have.”