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The NHL made it official that its players will not be allowed to participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
USA TODAY Sports

Today’s young American hockey players have grown up believing the dream of playing in the Olympics before turning pro only happens in movies.

“I watched ‘Miracle’ and that’s how it used to be,” University of Denver player Troy Terry said. “It was pretty cool.  That’s a little different than the Olympics I’ve grown up watching.”

Because the NHL has allowed its players to compete in the Olympics continuously since 1998, Terry has only known Olympic hockey as an NHL event. But Terry and his fellow college players, plus those with minor league-only contracts or Americans playing pro in Europe, suddenly have Olympic opportunities that weren’t there a year ago.

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Even though USA Hockey officials would prefer to have NHL players competing next February at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, their expectations haven’t changed.

“We look at it like we will be able to compete with anybody there,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations.

USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said the uniqueness of the American program, with its strong college programs, gives the Americans an advantage that other countries don’t have.

“We have some 21- and 22-year olds who are high-end players who we are going to see in the NHL sooner rather than later,” Kelleher said. “No other country has that type of player available to them.”

Kelleher said the absence of NHL players means a tighter, more wide-open event.  “This tournament could highlight each country’s depth, and we think we have greater depth than we’ve ever had,” Kelleher said.

Because the NHL won’t allow any player with an NHL contract (including those with two-way contracts who get sent to minors) to compete, every country is in the same position of having to fill Olympic rosters with non-NHL players.

“With what I’m looking at now, we are going to be a very competitive team, regardless of who we are playing,” Johannson said.

Outside the NHL, there are roughly 200 Americans playing pro hockey in other countries every season. The Americans, who expect to name a coach in early August, haven’t built an Olympic roster yet, but there are some leading candidates to make the roster.

Former NHL player and Connecticut native Mark Arcobello, 28, finished second in goals (25) and first in points (55) in the Swiss National League this past season. Former NHL player Drew Shore, 26, a Denver native, scored 24 goals in the Swiss League.

Career minor leaguer Andy Miele, signed to play in Sweden this season, will also get a look.

Another strong forward candidate: Chris Bourque, son of Hall of Famer Raymond Bourque. He is on an AHL-only contract and totaled 77 goals over his past three NHL seasons. Likewise, Michigan native Chris Conner, a veteran of 180 NHL games, is on an AHL-only contract. He has topped 50 points in each of his past three AHL seasons.

A host of former NHL defenseman – including Matt Gilroy (Russia), Dylan Reese (Sweden), Noah Welch (Sweden), Mike Lundin (Switzerland), Jon Blum (Russia) – are playing in Europe and considered potential Olympians.

“Some NHL depth defensemen go over to Europe and play top-four over there,” Johannson said. “They know how to play the position and how to defend. They are hard to play against. They know how to keep your team in the game.”

Experience on defense will be critical, Johannson said.

“Most of the dynamic offensive players are in the NHL,” Johannson said. “I think it’s going to be low-scoring hockey. We are going to try to keep games under control.”

Johannson isn’t sure how many college players will be chosen, but he believes that select college players can potentially have as much of an impact as a European pro.

“We have taken college players to the world championships and they have played totally fine for us,” he said.

Terry, Harvard’s Ryan Donato and Boston University’s Jordan Greenway are among the college players who will be considered.  Johannson said the USA will need college players versatile enough to play a variety of roles. These three players fit that description.

“What’s neat is that the guys I have spoken to have genuine excitement about the idea of playing at the Olympic Games,” Johannson said. “For me personally, I’m going back in time.”

Johannson didn’t play in the NHL, but he was a high-caliber minor league player and represented the USA at the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games.

Terry, a scoring forward at Denver, understands that fans like to see NHLers at the Olympics, but he thinks there is something to be said about the old way of allowing the Olympics to be for dreamers. 

“This opportunity is pretty special,” said Terry, a 2015 fifth-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks. “And it would be cool to have it as a goal for kids before they turn pro.”

Former NHL player Ted Donato was Johannson’s teammate on the 1992 U.S. squad, and 25 years later his son is an Olympic candidate.

“(My dad) is humble about his hockey past. He doesn’t like to talk about it,” Ryan Donato said. “But he has talked about how great his experiences were with USA Hockey and that one of his greatest experiences was playing in the Olympics.”

Donato said he would be honored to be chosen. “Wearing a USA jersey is not something I will ever take for granted,” Donato said. “When I think about the Olympics, what pops up for me is my cousin Tyler (McLees) who is serving in the U.S. Army. He seems to get so excited when I say I have a chance represent the USA.”

McLees is a West Point graduate. “Obviously, his experience serving his country is far different,” Donato said. “But just to represent USA would connect me with him and something that I would hold closely to me the rest of my life.”