Olympics will be just fine without the NHL
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff

The Olympics do not require professional participation to be great.

What makes each four-year cycle special is how athletes sacrifice themselves to chase a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Imagine the commitment, for example, for a sprinter to train to maximize his or her chance at striking gold in the 100-meter dash. The distillation of everything — fitness, nutrition, mental preparation, luck — into less than 10 seconds is impossible to describe.

In that way, it really doesn’t matter that the NHL posted a red light for play in the upcoming Winter Games. The Olympics are less about best-on-best than a platform for all the qualities that give the event its mass-market, human-interest appeal. 

So in the big picture, NBC’s ratings will not suffer because Sidney Crosby and his fellow former Olympians in Pittsburgh will be fighting to make the playoffs instead of chasing gold. The Olympics will remain must-watch material because its on-ice participants wearing hockey gear will have stories just as compelling as those wearing sequined costumes. 

Consider some of Team USA’s flag bearers with local connections:

■ Brian Gionta. The American captain is the definition of an underdog. During his draft year, Gionta exploded onto the Hockey East scene by scoring 30 goals and 32 assists as a Boston College freshman. But Gionta had to wait until the third round of the 1998 draft before New Jersey called his name, all because he measured too close to the roller coaster cutoff line. One thousand and six NHL games later, Gionta had willed himself to 289 goals, fifth most among players from his draft class (only Vincent Lecavalier, Pavel Datsyuk, Brad Richards, and Simon Gagne scored more), thanks to his sturdy frame, soft hands, and fiery battle level in the danger areas. The ex-Eagle scored 15 goals and 20 assists last season for Buffalo. But the sad-sack Sabres moved on from the 38-year-old. Gionta would like to prove them and other teams wrong.

■ Chris Bourque. It is not easy to be the son of one of the best defensemen in history. Ray Bourque’s elder son did not fare well enough with Washington, Pittsburgh, or Boston to earn full-time NHL status. But Chris Bourque has made a good living over the last four seasons as one of the AHL’s better players. For the last three years, Bourque has starred for Hershey, Washington’s farm club. This year, Bourque has played on an AHL contract, which granted him Olympic access. Team USA will count on the 31-year-old to pace the offense, which he’s done throughout his 693-game AHL career. 

■ Ryan Donato. In retrospect, it is ridiculous that NHL executives questioned Donato’s aspirations because he chose to stay at Dexter and play for uncle Dan Donato instead of going to a higher-ranked junior team. Ryan Donato has since developed into a go-to player for father Ted Donato at Harvard, recording a 12-8—20 line in 12 games this season. It’s possible that after the Olympics, Donato could follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from Harvard in 1991, Ted Donato spent the following year barnstorming with Team USA, then playing in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Upon conclusion of the Olympics, Donato signed with the Bruins and started his pro career. The son could follow the same template.

■ Noah Welch. Since 2011, the Brighton native has settled into life in Sweden as a dependable left-shot defenseman. The Harvard graduate bounced between Pittsburgh, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta before finding his niche overseas. Welch was one of the first pro hockey players to pledge to donate his brain to concussion research. Not only does Welch have his Brighton and Cambridge connections, he is married to Alissa Postma, sister of Bruin Paul Postma.

■ Matt Gilroy. After scoring six goals and 15 assists as a Boston University junior, the undrafted right-shot defenseman drew NHL interest. But Gilroy decided to stay for his senior season. It turned out to be the right decision. The Terriers won the 2009 national championship. Gilroy took home the Hobey Baker Award. By staying in school, Gilroy set himself up for a unique NHL introduction. He would be 25 at the start of the 2009-10 NHL season, which would put him outside the league’s entry-level system. The native of North Bellmore, N.Y., signed a two-year, $3.5 million deal with the Rangers. Gilroy’s puck-rushing approach at BU did not result in NHL traction. He played for Tampa Bay, Ottawa, and Florida before becoming a full-time KHLer for the last four seasons. 

■ Bobby Butler. No NHL team considered the Marlborough native worthy of a draft pick. But a 53-point senior season at the University of New Hampshire for Dick Umile in 2009-10 made Butler one of the hottest free agent recruits. In the Ottawa system, Butler earned the classification that makes regular playing time challenging: a goal scorer who didn’t do enough other things to earn ice time when his stick ran cold. After bouncing between New Jersey, Nashville, and Florida, Butler spent two seasons in Sweden and Russia before returning stateside this season to Milwaukee on an AHL deal. Butler’s 25 points through 32 games was enough to earn him the invitation, which turned into a global sensation when he informed father John Butler of the news. Video captured John, who coached Bobby at Marlborough High, nearly squeezing the breath out of his son.

■ John McCarthy. Nobody ever projected the left-shot forward from Andover as a go-to scorer. But each of his amateur teams, from St. John’s Prep to Des Moines of the USHL to BU, has always been in need of high-character hard hats. In 2008-09, future NHLers such as Gilroy, Colin Wilson, Nick Bonino, and Brandon Yip outscored McCarthy (6-23—29). But the captain was a critical component of BU’s championship squad because of his commitment, dedication, and dependability as a defensive-minded center. McCarthy, a seventh-round pick of the Sharks in 2006, is still with his original organization, albeit on an AHL contract. Team USA will ask its skilled attackers to provide the offense. But coach Tony Granato will need McCarthy to be a responsible depth forward.

In the fall of 2016, Team USA did not exactly sparkle when its top NHLers flamed out at the World Cup of Hockey. ESPN, which owned the broadcast rights to the tournament, could not make the World Cup relevant with casual viewers without the Americans contending for the title. 

In PyeongChang, NBC will not have this problem even if hockey’s most familiar names won’t be playing. The Americans, who will all have something to prove, will compete their tails off. People will still watch.


Upon review, it’s a tough call

There are few jobs more demanding or intense during a game than that of a video coordinator. The assistant coaches, via headset, tell the coordinator which plays they’d like flagged and logged for additional study during intermissions. This year, for the first time in the regular season, every team has permission to run iBench, the Thunder Hockey-powered program that allows coaches to watch clips on their tablets during game action. The coordinator is usually responsible for promptly informing his boss that a goal could be reviewed for an offside or goaltender interference challenge.

Naturally, it’s easy for some wires to get crossed.

The Bruins spent some time reviewing what went wrong on Dec. 28 during a 4-3 shootout loss to Washington. Prior to Lars Eller’s second-period goal, replay appeared to show that ex-Bruin Brett Connolly was offside during Christian Djoos’s entry. In the third period, before Connolly’s goal, the Capitals were onside, even though Eller nearly pulled the puck back over the blue line and into the neutral zone.

The Bruins didn’t contest Eller’s goal. But they challenged Connolly’s. In hindsight, it should have been the other way around.

The Bruins identified two problems after examining the breakdowns, specifically the one in which they issued an offside challenge on Connolly’s goal. At TD Garden, where Bob Essensa usually serves as the eye in the sky, the goaltending coach sits close to a monitor that shows replays. Given his duty and background as a former NHL goalie, Essensa can usually determine live and on replay whether goaltender interference has taken place.

At Washington’s Capital One Arena, Essensa didn’t have his usual monitor. At the same time, video coordinator J.P. Buckley was reviewing whether Tom Wilson had interfered with goalie Anton Khudobin, believing that’s what his boss was questioning. By the time Buckley was on the same page as his staff, referees TJ Luxmore and Dean Morton were pressing Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy for a decision. 

“By the time he got around to the offside,’’ Cassidy said of Buckley, “the refs are like, ‘Hey, are you challenging or not?’ What helps there is at home, we’ve got a monitor. Goalie Bob’s up top, so he can usually rule that out right away — no goalie interference, just by watching. He’s got a pretty good feel for that. We didn’t have that monitor in Washington, so we lost a bit of time on that. I’m hoping it’s one of those isolated incidents. We’ll get better at it.’’ 

Review determined the Capitals were onside. Because of the incorrect challenge, the Bruins were given a delay of game penalty. It could have been a costly error. But the Bruins killed the penalty and advanced to the shootout.

The NHL’s new rule of issuing a delay of game has discouraged coaches from issuing challenges as liberally as they did last season. The close call has prompted Cassidy to follow a simple rule: The infraction should be as close to black and white as possible.

“It’s more about, ‘Hey, you give us the percentage you feel it’s offside — automatic, to no chance it’s good, to somewhere in between,’ ’’ Cassidy described his marching orders to Buckley. “Then it’s up to the coach to make the call at the time and score.’’


Bergeron doesn’t need much time

Alex Chiasson could see it happening. On Dec. 14, when Brad Marchand set up with the puck below the goal line on the power play, the Washington penalty killer knew where the left wing’s pass was going. As the bumper in the middle of the five-on-four formation, Patrice Bergeron put his blade down and waited for Marchand’s feed to arrive. Chiasson, the weak-side forward, did his best to rotate and take Bergeron’s stick away. 

But Bergeron has become adept at ripping off rapid shots in tight quarters. So even though he didn’t have time to wind up and put the hammer down, Bergeron still rapped a one-timer past Braden Holtby for his first of two power-play goals that night. 

It came down to two things: being decisive about shooting and doing so with the proper technique. Both required Bergeron to be thinking about his shot even before Marchand’s pass arrived.

“I’m trying to keep my blade and my stick closer to the ice and being ready, having my skates facing the net as much as possible and being in a position to shoot,’’ Bergeron said. “Just trying to have that quick snapper, ready to get it on net. It’s one of those positions where they’re trying to deny that a little bit more now. It seems like they’re taking away the middle a bit more. So I’ve got to change my positioning a little more. I’m toward the wall now. The angle’s a little different. It’s a tough angle.’’

Bergeron and Washington’s T.J. Oshie play the bumper role as well as any attackers in the league. They are threats to score because they are quick thinkers, even when penalty killers are collapsing on them harder and faster than ever. Coaches don’t want to allow Bergeron to snap off his one-timer because of his skill and the area of the ice from which he’s firing. It is a high-percentage chance.

So the time Bergeron once enjoyed usually isn’t available anymore. Unlike David Pastrnak, who can reach for the sky to load up his left-side one-timer, Bergeron has to be quicker if his primary option is to shoot. 

“I’m just trying to face the net and be in a good position where I feel comfortable shooting and taking a quick shot,’’ Bergeron said. “I can still get good wood on it. But you usually shoot more with your arms than with your whole body when you don’t have much time with it.’’ 

Parise’s minutes will be managed

Zach Parise made his season debut last Tuesday in Minnesota’s 5-1 win over Florida. Parise missed the first 39 games after undergoing microdiscectomy surgery to relieve back pain. The scrappy left wing landed three shots on net in 13:35, riding on a line with Charlie Coyle and Chris Stewart. The 33-year-old is under contract through 2025 at a $7,538,462 average annual salary. The Wild will be careful about managing Parise’s workload. But the left wing is not familiar with less than an all-out pace. Somehow, player and organization will have to arrive at a compromise to ensure longevity. Otherwise, Parise’s contract will be even more of an anchor than it currently is.

Hairy situation for Kadri

Players do not have much time to think during fights. They are grabbing with one hand and punching with the other. So unless Nazem Kadri is a heel of the worst kind, the Toronto center was acting spontaneously by getting a hold of Joe Thornton’s beard instead of his jersey during a dustup on Thursday. The fight was brief, but it went long enough for Kadri to yank out a fistful of Thornton’s whiskers in his best imitation of Moe removing hair from Larry’s head. Kadri’s actions broke every code. While Thornton has plenty of whiskers to spare, he would have rather lost them to scissors instead of a rival’s grip. Here’s hoping for a San Jose-Toronto rematch in June.

Leach an AHL All-Star

It has not taken long for rookie Providence coach Jay Leach to figure things out behind the bench. On Monday, the AHL tabbed Leach as Atlantic Division coach for the All-Star Game. The two-day event, which includes a skills competition, will take place in Utica, N.Y., on Jan. 28-29. Under Leach’s watch, the P-Bruins have rolled to a 21-8-3 record, the best in the Eastern Conference. The 38-year-old will have some fresh-faced company in Utica. Sheldon Keefe (Toronto) is 37, Mike Van Ryn (Tucson) is 38, and Pascal Vincent (Manitoba) is 46.

Loose pucks

The Canadiens initiated their rebuild by trading backup goalie Al Montoya to Edmonton on Thursday. The return was a 2018 conditional pick. Montreal’s bounty will be far higher if general manager Marc Bergevin considers wheeling Max Pacioretty. The captain is under contract through 2019 at only $4.5 million annually . . . The NHL honors some of its giants via the names of its season-ending trophies. Some of the icons include Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe (playoff MVP), Canadiens goalie Georges Vezina (best goalie), NHL president Frank Calder (best rookie), player/coach/GM pioneer Art Ross (points leader), and Leafs and Canadiens GM Frank Selke (best defensive forward). There is half a season remaining for pursuers of the inaugural Johnson Bademosi Trophy to dive for their prize.

Chris Bourque is one of three Cushing graduates with an upcoming ticket to South Korea. The member of the Class of 2004 will be teammates with Broc Little (2007). The third PyeongChang-bound alum of the Ashburnham school is women’s captain Meghan Duggan (2006).

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.