Detroit — Megan Keller, the rock-solid U.S. defenseman from Farmington, said she got increasingly eager this week, as she finished packing for the Olympics and boarded a plane bound for South Korea.
Pavel Datsyuk, who won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in 14 seasons he filled with wizardry, warmed up for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics this week with a goal against Belarus. On a bus in Moscow after the game, Datsyuk said he is proud to represent his country in international play a fifth time, becoming the third Russian named captain to two Olympic teams.
The former Michigan State star Jim Slater of Lapeer, and Marysville’s Chad Billins, the former Ferris State standout and former Grand Rapids Griffins forward, said they and their families are excited about their surprising, late-career opportunity to play big games for the United States in the Olympics, after their NHL careers.
And the first African-American to play ice hockey for the United States in the Olympics, Jordan Greenway, says he is honored to wear “USA” on his chest yet again, after doing it for the first time during his training at the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor from 2014-16.
Hockey at the Olympics will feature an underdog men’s team from the United States against a powerful Russian squad, and a women’s national team that enters the Olympic tournament on a losing streak to its familiar foe, Canada.
For the men, it is a competitive situation closer to the “Miracle on Ice” of 1980 than in the five recent Winter Games in which the NHL has participated.
For the women, it is the challenge of reversing one of the winning streaks that either the United States or Canada occasionally mounts during their long, close rivalry, which recalls the sort of familiarity that existed among opponents that once existed in the NHL, during the so-called Original Six era.
‘An incredible honor’
Players and coaches with roots in Michigan are a big part of both United States National teams. They say they are looking forward to the hockey, representing their countries on a grand stage and to mingling in the Olympic Village and at the venues with some of the greatest athletes from a variety of winter sports.
“It’s really exciting, for all of that,” Slater said. “I’m going to take pictures and videos, and I’m starting a journal when I’m over there. I want to remember every moment.
“This is the pinnacle of many athletes’ careers.
“My parents (Bill and Diane Slater of Lapeer) are coming over and they’re excited to be part of it, and to watch the other events,” he said.
“To say your kid is an Olympic athlete is quite a special thing. To say I’m an Olympic athlete is an incredible honor.”
The National Hockey League and the International Olympic Committee failed to address the owners financial concerns after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The NHL decided not to participate in PyeongChang for the first time since 1994.
After reviewing allegations of a state-operated doping program at the Sochi games, the IOC is allowing Russian athletes to participate in 2018.
KHL players are expected to play for several countries, but mostly for a team to be called “Olympic Athletes of Russia.”
“If you look at the Russian roster, they have the biggest names of players that have played internationally and in the NHL and are stars,” said Tony Granato, the former Red Wings assistant coach, who is the head coach of the men’s team.
“So, you look at Datsyuk as being the big guy, but there is (Ilya) Kovalchuk and plenty of other ones there that have played in the Olympics and that are world class.
“On paper, the Russians have an outstanding team.”
Billins said he is looking forward to the challenge.
“Obviously, they have a very good team, with a lot of guys who have played a lot of years in the NHL,” said Billins, who said he is looking forward to being with his U.S. athletes in other sports.
“You know, we have a lot of guys who have played in the NHL, too. I think it’s going to be competitive.”
The Olympics will elevate Datsyuk’s august position in Russian hockey history. Only the former Red Wings defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov and Boris Mikhailov have been two-time captains of Russian or Soviet Olympic squads.
He is also, at 39, still the top player on the Russian team.
“It is a huge honor to play for your country in the Olympics,” Datsyuk said. “I am extremely honored.
“Life is complicated, and we cannot always control events or do everything we want to do. I always remember Detroit. It has a special place in my heart.
“I have left Detroit,” Datsyuk said. “But I never said good-bye.”
One of the younger players for the United States is undeterred by Russia’s strength.
“I’ve always had dreams of playing in the Olympics,” Greenway said.
“I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen before I graduated college. But I’m definitely going to take full advantage of it, and I’m hoping to bring back the gold medal in the process.”
It will be the eighth time in the 20-year-old’s career that Greenway has suited up for the United States, and the third time since he left “the program,” which was then in Ann Arbor and is now in the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth.
“I continue to get the excitement I got when I first put the jersey on at the NTDP,” Greenway said.
While the number of black players in the NHL and at other levels has increased over the past decade and more, Greenway said he would be happy to provide an example for others to “try something different, try a different sport.”
“I don’t think there’s as many African-Americans playing at a high level in hockey as there is in other sports, so hopefully I can just be a role model for these kids to look up to,” he said.
When Keller looked up, playing youth hockey, including for HoneyBaked, around Metro Detroit, she observed Nicklas Lidstrom.
The great Red Wings defenseman became the role model for the 21-year-old mainstay on the blue line.
A top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, for the top women’s collegiate player, last season, Keller won the Cammi Granato Award, named after Granato’s sister, as MVP of Women’s Hockey East in 2016-17. She is also an All-American, and likely will play in the women’s professional league, the National Women’s Hockey League, after she graduates from Boston College.
She plays like a big eraser.
Mistakes are made in hockey. Keller eliminates them.
“She is just so solid,” said Robb Stauber, head coach of the women’s national team.
“The thing about Megan is when there is a problem, when there is a mistake in what we are trying to do out there, her ability to adapt immediately and work out of the situation is just phenomenal,” Stauber said.
“Her ability to recover is really almost unlike anything I’ve ever seen. She just thinks the game so well she is able to put things right, right away.”
Winning the gold in women’s ice hockey for the first time in 20 years will require reversing a four-game losing streak to Canada, accrued during a recent eight-game series, after the United States won the World Championship, in Plymouth, in March.
“It really is a matter of looking for more consistency,” Stauber said. “We are not far off, at all, and certainly our goal is to be at our best at the Olympics.”
“I fully believe in every single one of my teammates, and I think we’re all still super confident,” Keller said. “The only games that matter are the ones that lie ahead.
“I think we’re all excited to go over there and kind of show everybody what this team is about and everything we can do, and we’re ready to accomplish that.
“I think it’s more of a focus on improving. I think we want to be on our best game when we go over there.”