Philadelphia has been the pinnacle for recent underdog success stories, and a trio of locals are hoping to keep that mentality going for Team USA in a year in which no NHL players will be participating in the games.
Ryan Gunderson (Bensalem), Chad Kolarik (Abington) and Brian O’Neill (Yardley) will be donning the red, white and blue with every intention of bringing home a medal, even if no one is expecting them to do so.
“Our team will play with a lot of passion and pride for the USA crest,” Kolarik said. “That will be evident from game one, because we never will get this chance again.”
With no current NHL players allowed to play in the Olympics, that left the Team USA selection committee looking overseas to find its talent. While there won’t be any household names playing in the tournament, outside of former NHLer Brian Gionta, when the Americans open play on Wednesday against Slovenia, the “replacements” are eager to show the world their talent.
“I think we can show that we are a talented group of hockey players,” Kolarik said. “It’s a fine line between making the NHL and not, a lot of the guys on this team have the talent to play in the NHL. You will see a fast, skilled team from Team USA.”
Kolarik, who played his high school hockey in Pittsburgh after moving from Abington, has played six career games in the NHL between Columbus and the New York Rangers. The 31-year-old has since bounced around Europe between various leagues, including the KHL and Swiss-A.
Since graduating from Germantown High and than Yale, O’Neill went on to play 22 games with the New Jersey Devils before moving over to the KHL. The 29-year-old defenseman also spent six years in the AHL.
Gunderson, who attended Holy Ghost Prep, never got his shot at the NHL but has strung together an impressive journey between the ECHL and AHL before heading over to Europe.
The latter still recalls waiting around for that phone call after playing in a tryout tournament overseas in which the Team USA officials spent much time scouting.
“It’s tough to put into words at this point,” Gunderson said. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, and I have a huge sense of pride being able to put on the USA jersey and play in the Olympics.
“It’s been a long journey for me. I was an average college player and worked my way up through the minor leagues and found my way over to Sweden. I’ve managed to play five seasons in the the top professional league in Sweden and two years in the KHL.”
All three players know the odds are stacked against them. The odds-on favorites are Russia, who will be suiting up former NHL stars who left to play in the KHL, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. After that, Sweden, Canada and Finland will likely fall next in line.
“It’s a short tournament so you have to be sharp right from the beginning and be willing to play whatever role comes your way. From a team perspective we have to come together as a group really quickly and have a good start; the field seems really wide open,” Gunderson said.
“Obviously we are an older group with the NHL dream behind most of us, so being able to play for Team USA is probably the highlight of my career,” Kolarik said.