3 Michigan hockey players hope to join Olympic team
Detroit — The NHL will not go.
But some local guys who have spent their lives making careers in the NHL or professional hockey are trying to get to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Unable to reach an agreement with the International Olympic Committee for a bigger piece of revenue generated by “men’s ice hockey,” the NHL owners will keep the top players from the best league in the world in North America, while others vie for gold.
It creates a considerable opportunity.
Who will skate for the United States?
Three guys from Michigan, Chad Billins, Andy Miele and Jim Slater, are among the possible Olympians.
Local youth hockey formed their careers in college and the pros, and after some seasons in the NHL or AHL, they play in elite European leagues.
Billins, Miele and Slater epitomize what the United States roster will be: A bunch of guys who once competed in choice leagues, enthused by the unexpected opportunity to play in prestigious games and skating with “USA” on their chests.
“It’s guys that are just excited to be there and excited about the opportunity, not guys that think it should be given to them,” said Miele, a Grosse Pointe Woods native.
“Because, for the most part, all these guys haven’t really been handed anything throughout their career. They’ve worked for everything.
“And they’ll continue to do so.”
'An extra jolt'
Miele plays for Malmo in the Swedish Hockey League, after stops in the NHL with the Coyotes and the AHL with Grand Rapids, Portland and Lehigh Valley, and four years in the NCAA at Miami.
Slater of Lapeer plays for Fribourg-Gotteron in the top tier of the National League, in Switzerland, after 584 NHL games with the Thrashers and Jets.
“It’s exciting,” he said of his Olympic prospects. “When you get towards the end of your career, you know, you never really think about the Olympics. It kind of gives you an extra jolt.”
Billins of Marysville also plays in the Swedish Hockey League, for Linkopings, after stints with three AHL teams.
“I thought it was a great opportunity, and obviously it would be such an honor to be able to play in the Olympics. But that hasn’t been determined, yet,” he said.
“I hope my chances are good.”
The KHL is considered likely to allow its players to play as “neutrals,” after the IOC banned the Russian Olympic team for its doping program in 2014 at the Sochi games. But Russian officials have issued conflicting statements.
To Slater, a third season in Europe gives him a scout’s view of the likely Olympic players.
“I think that’s kind of the fun of it,” Slater said. “It’s going to be so interesting.
“I think it comes down to this: To play in the NHL you need the opportunity and to be lucky. A lot of these guys just never had the opportunity or got lucky.
“They’re highly skilled. They’re fast. They’re competitive. They are really good hockey.”
Miele shares Slater’s enthusiasm for how the Olympic tournament is developing.
“Everyone for the USA has played in the NHL or has the ability to play in the NHL,” he said.
“There’s a lot of guys now who are going to get an opportunity they thought they wouldn’t get, and that’s going to bring a whole development and attitude and work ethic and all that good stuff to every game. Just the atmosphere that’s going to be built around it is just going to be super-exciting.”
Billins said he is finding the whole process of forming the rosters fascinating, and he thinks it will result in good, competitive, interesting hockey when the puck drops for the U.S. Feb. 14, against Slovenia.
“At the end of the day, it’s still the Olympics, for all the different wild cards and stuff. Everyone will be there and everyone’s going to want to win,” he said.
“So, it should be fun to watch and for me, hopefully, to be a part of.”
Billins, Miele and Slater all played on the United States roster in the 28th Deutschland Cup in Germany last month. The team, filled with prospective U.S. Olympians, finished 0-3, losing to Slovakia 2-1, Russia 5-2 and Germany 5-1.
The final roster will be announced Monday during the so-called Winter Classic game between the Rangers and Sabres at City Field.
The former Red Wings assistant Tony Granato, now coach at Wisconsin, is the head coach and one of his assistants is Chris Chelios of the Wings.
As a child, Billins, 28, traveled from Maryville to Port Huron to play, eventually engaging in a lot of travel hockey and not getting involved with AAA until his midget major year, when he was about 16.
He said his parents, Jason and Teri, played a big role.
“My dad, especially, helped me when I was little, and obviously he’s a big part of what I am today,” Billins said.
“A couple of coaches were really important. Charlie Cook, when I was playing for the Blue Water Wild and I was still in AA. And I played for Billy Ciraulo, Little Caesars AAA Hockey.”
Billins also played for Ferris State that made the Frozen Four.
When he graduated, he played for Jeff Blashill in Grand Rapids.
“I think Blashill was a big part of just giving me a shot at pro hockey, and he believed in me,” he said. “And it’s worked out. So, he’s had a big part of my career.”
Miele, 29, said every coach he had growing up influenced him, and he found the tough competition in hockey in southeast Michigan important for a small player, especially.
“With competition being so good in Detroit, it helped a lot,” he said. “I wasn’t always one of the sought-after guys.
“I wasn’t always the best player on my teams and, for me, that was great. I had to work that much harder. It was kind of the mindset I had to build growing up, which definitely helped me with my career and when I went to college and on the professional level.
“The competition growing up was just great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Miele said his parents, Jim and Sue, played a big role.
Slater remembers three-hour round trips to play hockey in Detroit.
“I tried out for Detroit Little Caesars and made that team, which now you are talking about an hour-and-a-half drive down and an hour-and-a-half drive back, four, five or six days a week,” he said.
His dad, Bill, a school principal and a former defensive lineman in the NFL, drove him. His mom, Andria, had dinner ready for him in the car.
“My parents were absolutely everything to me,” he said. “The sacrifices they made.”
Slater credited Marty Quarters, his coach in AAA hockey in Little Caesars and in major junior hockey for the Cleveland Barons, and Dan Lerg, his coach in major midgets for the HoneyBaked Hockey Club, with forming his career.
All three Michigan players said they hope to make the Olympic team. But the effort and the opportunity are what is important.
“It would be an unbelievable way to end a career if it happens,” said Slater, who contemplated retirement last summer, talked to his wife and decided to play another year for a shot at Pyeongchang.
“And if it doesn’t happen, hey, it was still a great career. And then you move on.
“But, yeah, I would love for it to end with an Olympic appearance for sure.”