Matty Beniers called his parents to ask them to answer a group FaceTime request so he could deliver some big news.
Of course that’s how the 19-year-old would tell loved ones he’s going to the Olympics.
Beniers was one of 15 college players named Thursday to the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey roster, a significant increase from 2018 when the NHL also opted not to participate. All 25 players named to the team went through the college ranks.
“It speaks volumes to how good college hockey is and not just one league: It’s pretty much across three or four different leagues,” said Beniers, the No. 2 pick of the 2021 draft to the Seattle Kraken. “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.”
Beniers, Michigan teammate Brendan Brisson and 2020 No. 5 pick Jake Sanderson of the Ottawa Senators headline the college players on the U.S. roster, which general manager John Vanbiesbrouck said was not intended as training for the future.
USA Hockey believed going the heavy college route gives it the best chance to medal at the Olympics for the first time since 2010. None of the players were even half a decade away from being born the last time the U.S. won Olympic gold in 1980.
“We’re very fortunately to have good, young players,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “This is for the here and now. Not once were we thinking of a distant future.”
The U.S. skewed much younger than four years ago when Troy Terry, Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway and Will Borgen were the only college players on a team made up of mostly older professionals playing in Europe. Donato led the U.S. in goals, Terry in assists, Greenway was one of the top all-around performers during the tournament and their contributions raised the trust level this time around for leaning on more college players.
“It took that hesitation out,” said Scott Young, who’s back as an assistant, this time under coach David Quinn. “We weren’t afraid to go young. We weren’t afraid to go young and hungry.”
That includes in net. Recent Michigan graduate Strauss Mann, who is playing in the Swedish Hockey League, is expected to be the starter.
“He’s kind of a brick wall back there,” Beniers said. “He’s a smaller goalie, but he is quick and hard to score on up top.”
Strauss is joined by Boston University’s Drew Commesso, who was a goaltender for the U.S. at the world junior championship, which was canceled four days in.
Sanderson, Beniers and University of Minnesota defenseman Brock Faber are the additional players from world juniors who were named to the team. The other college players are Harvard’s Nick Abruzzese and Sean Farrell, Minnesota’s Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies, Minnesota State’s Nathan Smith, Minnesota-Duluth’s Noah Cates, Boston College’s Marc McLaughlin and Drew Helleson and St. Cloud State’s Sam Hentges and Nick Perbix.
“Not everybody gets to be selected to go play in the Olympics,” said Smith, a Tampa, Florida, native who leads the NCAA in scoring. “Every kid dreams of playing in the Olympics, so it’s kind of a dream come true. It’s kind of hard to wrap up my head around still.”
Forwards Brian O’Neill, Kenny Agostino, Andy Miele and Nick Shore and defensemen Steven Kampfer, Aaron Ness and David Warsofsky are the U.S. players with NHL experience.
“We’ve got good players all over, whether in the NHL or college hockey,” Sanderson said earlier this week. “I’m super excited to play with those guys, just from playing against (many of) them in college. We just got to go there, give our best and expect the best.”
USA Hockey executives and coaches knew they needed some older players to handle the grind of the tournament, which begins Feb. 9 and goes through Feb. 20. The U.S. opens against China on Feb. 10.
“We feel that we do have enough strength and enough men to balance that out,” Young said. “You don’t want to go too much in one direction either way, but we feel that we’re going to be fast, we feel we’re going to be able to pressure teams and play a really fast and we feel that we have a lot of skill. When games get a little bigger, stronger, rougher, we’ve got some big, strong guys, too.”
O’Neill is the one returnee from the 2018 team, which lost to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. Defenseman Brian Cooper, who is playing in Sweden, and goaltender Pat Nagle, who is in the American Hockey League with Lehigh Valley, round out the U.S. roster.
“It’s kind of like putting a band together: You don’t pick five lead singers when you’re putting a band together,” Quinn said. “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.”
Longtime Boston Bruins center David Krejci headlines the Czech roster, which also includes former NHL forwards Michael Frolik, Tomas Hyka, Vladimir Sobotka, Roman Cervenka, Lukas Sedlak and Michal Repik and defensemen Jakub Jerabek, Tomas Kundratek and Libor Sulak.
Krejci, 35, skated in 1,088 games with the Bruins over the previous 15 NHL seasons and decided to move back to his native country to play in front of friends and family there. He’s one of four players on the team from the Czech Extraliga, while 12 come from the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League.
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