(Reuters) – Brian O’Neill treasured the chance to represent the United States at the 2018 Winter Games but the 33-year-old Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) forward never thought he would be back in his country’s uniform for the Beijing Olympics this year.
Then COVID-19 intervened, obliterating the National Hockey League’s (NHL) schedule and leading it to pull its international pool of talent from the men’s Olympic ice hockey tournament.
“That whole first part of the season leading up to it in 2018, I knew there was a pretty good chance that the NHLers weren’t going. That was kind of set in stone,” O’Neill told Reuters.
“This year, the NHLers dropped out late December and then all of a sudden, you know, 10, 15 days later, you get a phone call about being considered for the Olympic team.”
O’Neill is one of Beijing’s hurry-up Olympians: talented competitors scattered around the globe who were all but written off, only to have their ticket punched for the Games as countries slowly reconfigured their rosters.
While Olympic qualifications stretch into January, most hopefuls at least have an inkling that they’re in contention.
The same perhaps could not be said for the dozens now set to compete in Beijing’s men’s ice hockey tournament.
“In some ways it’s a positive because there’s less time to think about it,” said O’Neill, who’s gone into near-lockdown to stay healthy for the Games, with the KHL season on hold.
“I remember in 2018 just being so – not nervous per se, but just not knowing whether you’re going to make the team and then once you do find out you’re on the team, then you have six weeks of staying healthy, you know, not going to get hurt in a game – that’s probably the most nervous I’ve been playing hockey.”
With NHL players representing 11 of the 12 nations competing in the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Beijing Olympics, the global impact of the league’s pull-out was substantial.
“We’ve got a great blend of youth and experience,” U.S. coach David Quinn said in a televised interview after the American roster was announced.
“The challenges are, you’re throwing 25 players together in a short period of time and trying to become a cohesive unit, in a small window.”
The U.S. team, which finished seventh in 2018, features 15 university players and five from the KHL, including O’Neill, the only returning player from the 2018 U.S. team headed to Beijing.
“When everyone gets selected for the Olympic team, you kind of have that instant bond where it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re all here for a couple of weeks. Let’s do our best,'” O’Neill said. “It’s a pretty easy sell to get everyone to buy into.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Karishma Singh)