ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The men's hockey tournament at the Olympics didn't start well for the Americans. The U.S. lost to Slovenia in overtime. National Hockey League players are skipping the Olympics for the first time since 1994. The league didn't want to participate. That means the best players aren't there. NPR's Tom Goldman looks at what it means.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Ever since last April when the NHL decided no 2018 Olympics, there's been this notion the Pyeongchang tournament would return hockey to that coveted Olympic ideal of amateurism. In the U.S., we've been dusting off that most emotional of hockey memories when in 1980, a band of amateur Davids slew the Soviets, the ultimate hockey Goliath.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Do you believe in miracles - yes.
GOLDMAN: U.S. men's head coach Tony Granato played along this week, invoking the hallowed names of two of the Miracle on Ice heroes as a way to promote his team of non-NHL unknowns.
TONY GRANATO: 1980 - when I was watching the Olympics, I didn't really know who Mike Eruzione was or, for that matter, Jim Craig. And within two or three days, I kind of liked those guys. So I think if you watch our team, we'll find a few of those guys that, you know, you'll like to watch.
GOLDMAN: At a U.S. practice this week in the Gangneung Hockey Centre, players drilled against each other, and they looked pretty good, whoever they were. Even a hardcore hockey fan would need a program to identify them all. There are amateurs, college players like defenseman Will Borgen, a 21-year-old junior at St. Cloud State in Minnesota. In December, his phone rang. It was his college coach with the news that Borgen was going to South Korea.
WILL BORGEN: He just called me out of the blue. I was driving home from just skating around at high school. And yeah, I was super excited and told my parents right away. And yeah, they're very happy for me.
GOLDMAN: He's 1 of 4 college players on the U.S. team, but this is where the amateur ideal breaks down. All of the others have NHL experience or play in professional leagues below the NHL. But what they give up in name recognition they make up for with hunger. You hear that word a lot from the U.S. team. Thirty-nine-year-old Brian Gionta played in the NHL for nearly 20 years.
BRIAN GIONTA: I love our team. I love our hunger. I wouldn't say we're going to play with a chip on our shoulder, but we expect to come in here and compete for a medal.
GOLDMAN: Despite scoring the first two goals, the U.S. lost its opener to Slovenia 3-2. Hockey experts say the U.S. isn't one of the favorites. Teams like Sweden, Finland and Russia, which also lost, have players from strong pro leagues just a step below the NHL. They're the countries to watch in what's considered a pretty even field. There will be skilled players on the ice. Casual fans won't notice a big drop off in play. But...
SEAN MCINDOE: There won't be quite as much speed. There won't be quite as much skill.
GOLDMAN: That's Sean McIndoe. He hosts the hockey podcast Biscuits. McIndoe will be watching the Olympics from his home in the hockey mecca of Canada.
MCINDOE: When this tournament is over and somebody has won the gold medal, what will we have actually learned from that? Will we be able to point to that country and say, OK, well, this country is the best at hockey? Well, no, we won't be able to say that because we didn't have the best players there.
GOLDMAN: And if Canada wins its fourth Olympic gold medal since 2002, McIndoe laughs. Of course that means his country's the best. Just don't press him on what best means. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Pyeongchang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.