Morning Skate: Team USA features plenty of players worth rooting for

Can journeyman Chris Bourque finally emerge from his father’s shadow at the Olympic Games? 

The NHL has prohibited its players from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympic men’s hockey tournament — meaning that the league will not send players to the Winter Games for the first time since 1998. So the Team USA roster that was revealed at Monday’s Winter Classic is composed instead of players competing in international leagues, on minor league contracts or in the NCAA. Our writers tell us who among that roster they’re most excited to watch.

Who is the biggest Team USA Olympic roster surprise or your favorite rooting interest?

Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: There’s a certain “1990s sports movie comedy” aspect to the 2018 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, what with the rag-tag collection of rink rats thrust into patriotic duty because the star pro players are suddenly banned from the Olympics. Make Bill Pullman the coach and start counting those VHS rental dollars.

Were this a sports comedy, then Chris Bourque would be the heart and soul of said movie. He’s the 31-year-old son of an NHL legend who has … well, not exactly had a legendary career while living in the shadow of Ray Bourque. The majority of the younger Bourque’s career has been spent in the American Hockey League, and the majority of those seasons (10) were spent with the Hershey Bears.

Bourque had cups of coffee with the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins — 51 total games, during which he had two goals and six assists. He saw some time in the KHL and the Swiss league. When he plays his first game for Team USA in Pyeongchang, he’ll have played more Olympic games than Stanley Cup playoff games during his 13-year hockey career.

So you have the talented kid who can’t match the accomplishments of his father; you have a journeyman who couldn’t break through and stay in the big leagues (and because of that, ironically, he’s eligible to play in the Olympics); and you also have a pro player who is trying to become more than a punchline for a “on waivers … again” joke.

You have the kind of backstory that melts away the minute Chris Bourque scores a game-winning goal in a medal-round game for the United States — quite the Hollywood ending.

Emily Kaplan, NHL reporter: Hockey struggles to be inclusive — yes, even now, in 2018. It can be classified as a sport of privilege, thanks to its high cost to play. The sport is also still predominantly white. I found Chance the Rapper’s SNL skit — in which he played a basketball reporter thrust into hockey sideline reporting — greatly amusing, in part because it pointed to an uncomfortable truth. While the sport has made strides to ensure that hockey can be for everyone, there’s still a long way to go. There are about 30 black players in the NHL. Jordan Greenway, who was selected to play for Team USA at the 2018 Games, will be the first African-American player ever to make a U.S. Olympic hockey roster. It’s a barrier that took 98 years and 23 Olympic cycles to break.

A bit about Greenway: he’s 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, a strong-but-skilled power forward who seems to be only getting better. He was born in Canton, New York, and was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the second round of the 2015 draft. The soon-to-be 21-year-old is currently a junior at Boston University (he could have turned pro before this season, but decided to stay in college at least one more year). He’s one of four college players to make the U.S. roster for the Games in Pyeongchang.

Greenway has represented the U.S. in international tournaments before. He had a breakout performance on last year’s World Junior Championship gold-medal-winning team, trailing only Clayton Keller for the Team USA lead in points (8) and assists (5). But the Olympic stage welcomes an even broader audience. We’ve griped long enough about how the absence of NHL players means young stars like Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews aren’t getting the mainstream introduction they deserve. Well, let’s look at the positive. This created an opportunity for Greenway in 2018 — and an opportunity to highlight his background on that same stage. And maybe he’ll inspire at least one kid out there to pick up a stick because someone on the ice looked like him or her.

Chris Peters: First off, the biggest surprise to me — by far — is James Wisniewski. I’m not going to argue with his inclusion, but after he was not selected to be part of Team USA’s roster for the Deutschland Cup, the only tournament the squad was to play in preparation for the Olympics, it looked like Wisniewski was on the outside looking in. He even tweeted on Oct. 18: “Well … the Olympic dream won’t happen for this kid … what a whirlwind of a career.”

Wisniewski could have come back to the U.S. and retired, but the oft-injured defenseman stuck it out in Germany’s second pro division, where he has 36 points in 23 games for EC Kassel Huskies. Despite that offensive success, I thought he was already out of it, so he’s definitely a big surprise to see on the final roster.

Additionally, as a prospects beat writer, I’m obviously looking forward to seeing how the four current college guys play. Anaheim Ducks draft pick Troy Terry (University of Denver) was the hero of last year’s World Junior Championship and has been one of college hockey’s best players this season. The aforementioned Greenway was another standout at last year’s WJC and brings a power element that you need to have in your lineup. Buffalo Sabres draft pick Will Borgen is a big body and good skater who can defend pretty well, and Boston Bruins pick Ryan Donato of Harvard has been dominant in his junior season.

When it comes to individual rooting interest, however, I think there are just so many great stories on this team — and you know this opportunity means so much to these guys. Just do yourself a favor and watch when Bobby Butler informed his dad he’d be an Olympian. What a moment that was.

The player I’m most looking forward to seeing at the Olympics, though, is — like Greg — Chris Bourque. Bourque has dominated the minor leagues, but things never panned out for him at the NHL level. Given that he is the son of a Hall of Famer, the expectations heaped on Chris Bourque were always so high, but his game was never quite complete enough to stick at the top level. That said, he remains an immense offensive talent and is one of the greatest American-born players in the history of the AHL, with 678 points in 693 career games. After all those years of toiling on busses in the minors, he has what is likely his last chance to grab the spotlight and showcase his talent.

www.espn.com – NHL

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