Jake Sanderson to play for U.S.; college stars eye Olympic chance

North Dakota defenceman Jake Sanderson plays against Penn State during an NCAA college hockey game on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are eyeing several college players to play at the Olympics after the NHL decided not to participate in Beijing. Sanderson has already agreed to play for the U.S. (John Amis/AP)

Jake Sanderson felt bad that he would be missing a handful of games at North Dakota to play at the Olympics.

When he expressed that sentiment to his college teammates and coaches, the star defenceman was greeted with support. It was already an easy choice for Sanderson to suit up for the United States in Beijing, and that made it even simpler.

"It was kind of a no-brainer," he said. "It's kind of something you can't really pass up. It's the Olympics. You don't know if you'll ever be able to play in the Olympics in your lifetime."

After the NHL decided to withdraw from the 2022 Games, an opportunity of a lifetime was suddenly available for Sanderson, Michigan's Owen Power and Matty Beniers, and other players in the U.S. college ranks with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada eyeing the NCAA for top talent to fill their rosters. College players deciding whether to leave school for a few weeks to go to Beijing can look no further than the 2018 Olympics for some strong evidence in the yes column.

Anaheim's Troy Terry, Minnesota's Jordan Greenway and Seattle's Ryan Donato all skated for the U.S. in Pyeongchang on a team made up of mostly older professionals playing in Europe. They've since combined to play in 611 NHL games.

"I would tell those guys if they got the chance to cherish it, enjoy and make the most of it," Donato said. "Coming from college, it was obviously a little nerve-wracking because you have all these guys that have played in the NHL and I think it does do a lot for your confidence realizing that you could hang around with these guys."

Sanderson, a Whitefish, Montana, native taken by Ottawa with the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, has already accepted his invitation. The top two NHL picks in 2021 — Power, who went first to Buffalo, and Beniers, who went to Seattle — have each been invited to play for Canada and the U.S., respectively. Michigan teammates Brendan Brisson (U.S.) and Kent Johnson (Canada) are also Olympic candidates.

Greenway and Terry were U.S. candidates when it looked like the NHL was halting its season for almost three weeks to let the world's best hockey players play in the Olympics for the first time since 2018.

Greenway said he probably would have gone if chosen, especially if virus testing and quarantine restrictions were modified because, like many would-be participants, those were his biggest concerns. That's the major difference from 2018.

"There's also other factors that go into it now because of the circumstances and the situation, which I understand," Greenway said. "I think it is maybe a little bit more of a question. It's not a no-brainer, let's say, maybe now. It could be a little bit different for those guys. You take the hockey part alone and the experience and everything that goes into that, it's a special, special experience."

U.S. general manager John Vanbiesbrouck and coach David Quinn believed the Olympic experience was a strong selling point, even taking pandemic and college duties into account. One additional motivation is that the world junior championship was cancelled last month over fears of a virus outbreak, and the Olympics could serve as something of a do-over for that tournament for several players under the age of 20.

Still, Quinn realized trying to convince active college players to go to Beijing is not the same as his days recruiting at Boston University.

"These circumstances are a lot different," Quinn said. "Leaving the team in the middle of the season and with the COVID situation, there's a lot of hurdles, a lot of obstacles. But I think everyone wants to play in the Olympics."

Mel Pearson, who is coaching Michigan with a powerhouse roster and a legitimate shot at a national championship, has told players he's supportive of them going to the Olympics.

"Opportunities like that, they don't come along that often," Pearson told reporters last weekend. "We'll fully support them and look forward to getting them back once they get home with a medal."

Seeing he'd only miss four games at North Dakota and that quarantine requirements were not nearly as lengthy as had been rumored eased Sanderson's concerns. He also hopes to be in the NHL soon, and watching Terry, Greenway and Donato play there now is additional incentive.

"You look at those guys and they're doing very well in the NHL," Sanderson said. "I think being with the guys and living in the moment there and taking it all in, having fun in the Olympic village, I think the whole experience will be breathtaking, will be fun."

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