Less than two weeks later Thursday night, they were halfway across the world in an unfamiliar arena in Beijing, celebrating together after each had played a hand in Team USA’s 8-0 win over China to open its Olympics. There was Brisson scoring the first goal on a dish from Knies. There was Beniers showing off his speed and cleaning up his team’s seventh score of the night. There was Farrell scoring three goals and assisting on two others, the star on a night devoid of the sport’s biggest stars, who were back home with their teams in the NHL, forced to watch from afar after the league opted in late December not to send its players to the Winter Games because of coronavirus-related scheduling concerns.
“It definitely helps to play in a real game,” said Farrell, who knows the effort to field a team for Beijing has been frantic. Team USA has had three general managers serve in the role over the past several months. It has replaced its coach and, exactly four weeks before the puck was dropped Thursday, announced a mishmash roster featuring NHL castoffs, European league veterans and 15 college kids. The Americans didn’t have any NHL players at the PyeongChang Games in 2018, either, but at least then the team had 10 months’ notice of the league’s plans to not participate. Four years later, a gold medal pursuit in Beijing hinges on a group of players who have had a matter of days to prepare.
“Fortunately for us, we’ve all been in these international situations where you don’t have a lot of time to get the team together and to bond quickly,” U.S. Coach David Quinn said. “I think our players have kind of taken it upon themselves. There’s only so much we can do as coaches.”
After the NHL withdrew from the Games in December, Team USA turned to Quinn to take over head coaching duties from Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan. The team also appointed John Vanbiesbrouck as the third general manager to handle the role leading into Beijing. In December, Minnesota Wild General Manager Bill Guerin took over for former Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, who resigned after an investigation determined Bowman failed to take sufficient action after he was informed of a sexual assault allegation in 2010. Guerin stepped down after the NHL’s withdrawal from the Games, and amid that attrition in the front office there was still a roster to build in less than a month.
“One of the things we did as an organization is we identified players that we thought were team players first and foremost,” said Quinn, whose team opted to bring back just one player with Olympic experience: Brian O’Neill, who was part of Team USA’s seventh-place finish in PyeongChang.
The United States leaned heavily on NCAA stars, some of whom missed a chance to represent their country at the world junior championships when the tournament was canceled for coronavirus reasons late last year. Most had prepared to watch Team USA compete with NHL players in Beijing while they stayed with their college teams. But once they received the call for Beijing — the United States did not announce its roster until Jan. 13 — they were told to report at the end of January for a training camp in Los Angeles for a few days. They would have to learn how to jell with their teammates on the fly.
“I just kept business as usual in college and prepared in that way. I think the NCAA is a great way to prepare,” Farrell said. “Fortunately, we had a lot of games on our schedule at Harvard before coming out here, so I felt we were ready.”
There were signs Thursday night that this group is still a work in progress. The U.S. players were shaky offensively and had to adjust to the physicality of China in the first period, leading 1-0 off Brisson’s goal after 20 minutes. But the talent, especially from a core of younger players, was also undeniable: Noah Cates, a forward for NCAA powerhouse Minnesota Duluth, opened the second period with a goal off a slick backhanded feed from Farrell.
After O’Neill added a goal, Farrell converted to push the score to 4-0, then contributed two more goals in the third period. And Beniers, who was the No. 2 pick by the Seattle Kraken in last year’s NHL draft and is one of Team USA’s headliners, had settled in by that point and scored his first Olympic goal with eight minutes left. He said later that the performance underscored the team’s process of building chemistry in such a short span.
“I think everyone saw that in the game … we were playing hard, but things weren’t connecting like they normally would,” Beniers said. “Later in the game, you start seeing passes connect, people making nice plays and linemates starting to feed off each other.”
Team USA’s path in the tournament will get more difficult Saturday when it meets Canada, and there are still tweaks to the roster being made. Jake Sanderson, a budding defenseman from the University of North Dakota, is expected to join the team by Friday after clearing coronavirus protocols. He’ll be the latest young prospect to experience the stark difference between playing in college games and on the international stage in the matter of two weeks.
Knies could relate. He called the transition to competing in Beijing “pretty crazy,” and he was still trying to wrap his head around it after the win Thursday night.
“It was pretty surreal,” he said, “playing in that kind of game, that kind of atmosphere.”