Can Team USA goalies go from anonymity to Olympic glory?
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
Outside of dragging the Soviets over their assumed dominance, this has always been the most memorable part of the speech coach Herb Brooks delivered to the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team before their “Miracle On Ice” in 1980.
Thirty-eight years later, these words are entirely applicable to the team headed to Pyeongchang in February: The potential for great moments, for a collection of players who never believed this great opportunity would ever come around — as long as the NHL was sending its superstars to the Olympics.
Instead, a trio of journeyman goaltenders will be the last line of defense for a team that’ll still be learning each other’s names when the puck drops in the Winter Games. They could become Jim Craig in 1980. Or, failing that, Ryan Miller in 2010, backstopping the U.S. to silver and getting ‘#DoYouBelieveInMillercles’ trending on Twitter after an epic win over Canada in prelims.
Attempting to win gold for the U.S. men for the first time since the “Miracle:” David Leggio, a 33-year-old goalie from Western New York who played seven seasons in the minor leagues in North America before leaving for the German league; Ryan Zapolski, a 31-year-old goalie from Western Pennsylvania who played five seasons in the ECHL before starring in Finland; and Brandon Maxwell, the 26-year-old goalie who played a single game in the ECHL before departing for the Czech league in 2014.
Many hockey fans in North America see these names and roll their eyes, because there’s no replacing the NHL stars in the Olympics. Whether it’s expected time difference or the lack of celebrity players, there’s a decided lack of buzz for the men’s hockey tournament in the U.S., with some fans declaring they won’t even make time to watch it.
The players have detected this apathy, processed it, and have decided the factors that led to their Olympic dreams coming true are ultimately out of their control and unessential.
“That was a decision I had no control over. As a fan, I watched them, and it was incredible. But this isn’t the first time the NHL players haven’t been there,” Leggio told ESPN. “It’s not a decision that any of the players on these teams made. I’m just proud to be an Olympian. That’s it.”
To quote the great Herb Brooks, again: “Every one of you were meant to be here. This is your time.”
The absence was glaring.
When USA Hockey announced its men’s Olympic team roster at the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Citi Field, it had every position filled except for two of its three goaltenders. The only name listed: That of Ryan Zapolski, in his second season with Jokerit Helsinki of the KHL.
If you’ve never heard of Jokerit, you’ve probably seen its logo: a court jester with a red and yellow outfit, winking from the front of a hockey sweater.
“When I signed, I had six people that messaged me to say ‘that’s the best logo I’ve ever seen,'” Zapolski told ESPN after his selection.
When he was named to the Olympic team, he had slightly more interaction with friends and family: About 100 text messages from around the world and his hometown in Erie, Pa., and roughly 1,000 new Twitter followers within days. “I went through many emotions. I know everyone else did as well,” he said.
Those emotions began the first time Zapolski read his name on a potential Olympic roster. In April, the NHL officially made its announcement that players would not be participating in the 2018 Olympics. At that point, speculation began about who might represent the U.S. in their place.
There’s a Christopher Guest movie called “For Your Consideration” that’s reminiscent of Zapolski’s surreal journey of discovery. In that film, the actors working in a small art house movie get delusions of Academy Awards grandeur when they begin to read their own names in Oscar speculation columns. Which is sort of how Zapolski’s Olympic dream started.
“I think there was some article that came out, and that’s when I first considered it,” he said. “It wasn’t in my mind at all. It was so far away from me. It was for all of us.”
But once the seed of an Olympic dream is planted, it becomes all-encompassing. Zapolski admitted that focusing on his KHL duties as sometimes been a challenge, with what’s looming ahead.
“You think about what could happen. About playing in a gold medal game, what could happen there. It’s hard not to think about it. You have to block it out, do your job,” he said.
Zapolski has done an incredible job overseas, following an impressive if ultimately unfulfilling run in the ECHL, where he played after completing four years at Mercyhurst College. He saw action with the Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye, Gwinnett Gladiators and South Carolina Stingrays from 2010-13. His longest and best season was with the Stingrays in 2012-13, when he was 25-11-2 with a .944 save percentage.
He had offers from American Hockey League teams, but Zapolski didn’t want to be the fifth goalie on the organizational depth chart. So he left for the SM-liiga in Finland, both for increased playing time but also to work with a goalie coach in a daily basis from a country that’s considered a netminder factory. In the ECHL, in contrast, he would work with a goalie coach around once a month.
“It was always the plan to come over and play one year,” he said. “It’s been five now.”
The last two seasons with Jokerit are what landed him on the Olympic team, having gone 39-33-8 in 80 games, with a .922 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average. Although he lost all four games he played in the playoffs last season, he had a robust .936 save percentage.
“The numbers are fantastic, on a consistent basis, for the last five or six years in Europe,” said the late Jim Johansson, who served as Team USA general manager until his untimely death on Jan. 21. “When you get to know him, he’s got a calm demeanor to him. He can see the competitiveness to him, but he also brings confidence to the team.”
Zapolski has also done what will be required for any Team USA goalie, which is to put his team on his back for stretches. “When you look at his teams, they’ve had some success, but they’ve also needed a goaltender to help carry them through some games and he’s been able to do that,” said Johansson.
Zapolski’s is no longer the only goalie name on the American roster, but he hopes it’s the first name on the depth chart when the tournament starts. “I’m hoping I could be the guy. I think it depends on who is playing the best,” he said.
Said U.S. men’s coach Tony Granato: “Zapolski’s had the best year of the three, playing in the KHL. But all three are what we’re looking for to represent our country.”
If he gets his shot, Zapolski believes every team is just a hot goalie away from a medal.
“It’s a short tournament, that I think the goalie is the most important player for every team. They’re going to be tight games, not only with the way the tournament is set up but because of the uncertainty on the rosters,” he said. “When NHL players are there, it’s three or four teams that have a chance. Here, it’s wide open.”
David Leggio called his father in early January, and began the conversation in typical fashion. He explained what the weather was like in Munich, Germany, where Leggio has played goalie for EHC München since leaving North America in 2015. His father talked about the weather back home in Buffalo, New York. It was comforting and mundane — until Leggio finally shared his news:
“Yeah, by the way … I made the Olympic team.”
His father started crying.
“I couldn’t understand what he was saying. My dad’s always been a funny crier,” said Leggio.
Potential Olympic team members have a contentious relationship with their phones, as they are both the herald of good and bad news. Like when Johansson called Leggio around the time of the Winter Classic announcement.
“When I got the call from JJ, I thought it was going to be yes or no. But it was about how they needed more time. So it wasn’t a ‘no.’ You just don’t want to hear the ‘no,'” said Leggio.
When Team USA assistant coach Keith Allain called a few weeks ago, while Leggio was at the park with his dog and his young son, the call was agonizing. “We were making some small talk, and my adrenaline was running about a thousand miles an hour. I was like ‘please, just tell me what’s up,'” he said.
Here’s what’s up: He was a U.S. Olympian.
He didn’t use the phone to call his wife after getting the news that he’d made the team. Instead, he put on a USA hat when he saw her later that day, a subtle signal that resulted in spontaneous joy.
Leggio had an inkling he would be on the team after he joined Zapolski and Maxwell on the U.S. Deutschland Cup roster, which was seen as a first draft of the potential Olympic roster. “But you never know,” said Leggio. “I would feel good about it. And then I would feel doubt about it. I felt really grateful about being considered. But I really wanted to make the team. I was thinking about it constantly.”
The Olympic dream dominated his thoughts. “The whole process was pretty motivating for me. I wondered in the summer if it would affect me negatively, and it didn’t,” said Leggio. “It’s all how I processed it. Like, maybe I work a little harder on an off day. You’re training for the Olympics. Better get in the gym.”
Leggio is the best known of the three U.S. goalies heading into the Olympics. He played steadily in the AHL from 2010-15 in the farm systems for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals and Arizona Coyotes. But he’s also the unofficial clown prince of netminders, having gone viral for his spot-on impression of broadcaster Pierre McGuire:
– Jimmy Murphy (@MurphysLaw74) April 24, 2017
He went even more viral for one of the most inventive ways of thwarting a prime scoring attempt for an opponent: Literally moving the goal posts.
Twice, Leggio knocked his own net off its moorings on 2-on-0 rushes to instead earn a more manageable penalty shot. He did in the AHL in 2014, and then again with EHC München in December.
Watch: Goalie pushes net off pegs during breakaway … again – David Leggio is an absolute savage…. �� pic.twitter.com/YZsFn1FzOP– Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) December 9, 2017 David Leggio is back to his old tricks. The former AHL’s Bridgeport So… https://t.co/M79QykoCDM
– Jesse Choo (@JesseChoo) December 9, 2017
In both cases, the leagues created a “David Leggio Rule” banning the move, as some considered it unsportsmanlike — and as Leggio discovered in Germany, some hockey cultures considered it really, really unsportsmanlike.
“It’s a little different over here. I’m not supposed to talk about it,” said Leggio, declining to elaborate and calling it a settled matter.
He’s the oldest goalie of the three at 33 years old, and is 14-7-0 in 21 games with a .910 save percentage this season. This is Leggio’s fifth national team appearance for the U.S. “Leggio has been a great teammate wherever he’s been. A very steady, consistent performer. He’s always accepted the role he’s had, but he’s also always been ready to play when called upon,” Johansson said.
Leggio expects Zapolski to the starter in Pyeongchang. While he’ll challenge for that net, Leggio also knows that being the backup is a vital role, too. “In every one of those [national team] appearances, I’ve just tried to be whatever the team needed. If I’m the guy, I’m going to play as well as I can. If I’m not the guy, I’m going to be as supportive as I can,” he said.
Even if that means much less screen time for whoever gets to play David Leggio in “Miracle 2: Skate Harder” someday.
“I’ve seen ‘Miracle’ many, many times. But you don’t see Steve Janaszak enough in that movie. The backup goalie,” he explained.
Brandon Maxwell has seen “Miracle” at least 15 times. But as the saying goes: You haven’t truly experienced “Miracle” until you’ve seen it on Czech language television.
“It’s funny … it was actually on the other day here, in Czech, and all the guys were pointing to the TV for me to watch,” said Maxwell, in his second season with Mlada Boleslav BK, and his fifth season overall in the Czech Extraliga.
“I actually just bought ‘The Boys of Winter’ book, too. It’s great really interesting. That was a very tight team worked for each other. We already have great team chemistry and I think that will go a long way,” he said.
It’s a ‘next man up’ mentality that Maxwell has had throughout his career, and fits well with the Team USA aesthetic. “I’ll be ready if called upon, if not I’ll do whatever the team needs to help. We’re there to win a gold medal as a team it doesn’t matter who is playing. Same goal in mind,” he said.
Maxwell is the only goalie of the trio who was drafted by an NHL team, taken No. 154 overall in the 2009 draft by the Colorado Avalanche. He’s also played the fewest professional games in North America of the three goalies: One, in the 2014-15 season with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL.
Maxwell was signed by the Grizzlies after the Anaheim Ducks called up two Utah goalies on an emergency basis. On Nov. 8, 2014, Maxwell had his cup of ECHL coffee, stopping four shots in the shootout for a 4-3 victory over Ontario.
After that, he’s played exclusively in the Czech league.
“It’s a very good league. I would say the style is similar to KHL. Lots of skill, quick transition, with five players on the attack,” he said. “It was an opportunity to develop mentally and mature on the ice. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m glad I came here. Everyone’s journey is different and this is mine.”
Had he not left for Europe, he wouldn’t have played on the large international-sized ice that the 2018 Winter Games will feature. Which means had he not left for Europe, he might never have been an Olympian.
“They’re very experienced in Europe. I think in Maxwell’s case, he’s an elite puck-handling goaltender. That factored into our discussions. We have the potential of three back-to-backs, depending on where we fall in the tournament structure. He gives us another weapon on the breakout, and alleviating pressure on the defensemen,” said Johansson.
Maxwell liked his chances to make the team but, like Leggio, he had to wait until after the initial roster announcement. “I was little bit emotional. I saw the video of [Bobby] Butler telling his dad he made the team, and I wanted to do the same. [My family] worked hard and made a lot of sacrifices so I could play hockey. It was special to be able to share this with them,” he said.
Now, he’s got another family — the one that will chase gold in South Korea.
“It would be the ultimate accomplishment to be a part of a gold medal-winning team. Everyone plays a part in winning a medal. Whether you have a big or small role,” he said.
Of course, the bigger the role for Team USA, the more ripples it could make across the ocean, back to the U.S. and Canada.
There’s a flip side to Herb Brooks’ famous preamble: Great opportunities can also be born of great moments.
For the North American players on Team USA and Team Canada, chasing a medal is paramount. But many of them are chasing a chance to return to North America to play hockey, too.
Success in the Olympics can be transformative. Two good weeks, a medal and a spot on “The Today Show” helped propel Ryan Miller to stardom (and probably earned him a few Vezina Trophy votes) in 2010. These goalies are aiming a little lower: Potentially parlaying an Olympic performance into an NHL gig.
“I’m getting older, but it’s a big stage. You always want to prove people wrong. That’s pretty much been my whole career,” said Zapolski. “I never had much of a chance in North America. This could be my last opportunity, and my best opportunity, to show some teams over there I can play in the NHL.”
The fairy tale doesn’t always have the desired ending. Craig only played 30 games in the NHL after winning gold in 1980, retiring at 27 after a series of injuries and attitude problems. Ray LeBlanc was a career minor leaguer who worked at a Pepsi bottling plant to supplement his income before he backstopped the U.S. to the medal round of the 1992 Winter Olympics. But he’d only go on to appear in one game, with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1992, before playing in the minor leagues through 2000.
Which is to say that these great opportunities might not extend beyond the 2018 Winter Olympics. But they’re secondary in the minds of Zapolski, Leggio and Maxwell to the great moment at hand: Representing their nation, on the grandest winter sports stage.
“When you step on the ice for a tournament representing the U.S., an adrenaline rush goes through you. It’s hard to describe. That you’re fortunate enough to be in that a situation, where so many things had to go right for you to be in that situation. It’s almost like a culmination of everything you’ve done, to get to that point. And then you’re representing your country, with your flag on your chest,” said Leggio.
“‘Proud’ doesn’t describe it. ‘Honored’ does.”