GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Thrown together from leagues all over the world, the players shook hands and introduced themselves to teammates they’d never met but know well thanks to a bit of technology.
Long before their first practice together Friday, members of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team connected via a group chat dreamed up by Matt Gilroy, a defenseman from North Bellmore.
They talked hockey, logistics and life, and it’s already paying dividends.
“When we get in the locker room today, we feel like we’ve known each other for a while,” forward Brian O’Neill said.
The U.S. was among the final teams to get on the ice together as a group, save for many playing at the pre-Olympic Deutschland Cup in November. With just five practices to get up to speed with coach Tony Granato and each other, the group chat and a website to study various systems were essential to bonding and developing camaraderie. Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato told her brother, a former New York Ranger, such bonding was key in a short international tournament.
Players got comfortable with each other so quickly it didn’t take long for them to start making fun of each other and feeling like a team.
“It kind of builds chemistry,” forward John McCarthy said. “You get to know guys, and guys are chirping each other back and forth a little bit.”
There are few things hockey players enjoy more than chirping at each other, so naturally much of the conversation came with sarcasm and revolved around ribbing each other. Gilroy, a former Ranger now playing in Finland, said it helped players grow closer, whether they knew each other or not.
From the oldest player in 39-year-old captain Brian Gionta to the youngest in 20-year-old Troy Terry, differences and the distance gap disappeared among all the messages from players at all hours of the day.
“Guys are all over the world playing and certain guys are playing against each other in different leagues, so stuff happens in a game and you get to hear from it and guys are always just checking in,” said Gilroy, who graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset. “You wake up (to) guys in America texting different stories. It’s just been a lot of fun because we don’t get a lot of time together, but it’s amazing with technology you feel like you know these guys now, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
Gilroy put O’Neill, a teammate with Finland’s Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League, in charge of organizing the group chat on WhatsApp and called it “our first challenge as a team.” Gilroy apparently wanted an outlet to give other players a hard time, so he was active on the chirping front.
Group chats weren’t a thing when Granato played at the 1988 Olympics, though he loved the idea to go along with his planning. Granato and assistant Ron Rolston tried to get players digitally prepared by giving them some homework to study before getting the whiteboard out for some more hands-on teaching at Gangneung Hockey Centre.
“We’ve been able to post some video and some different things for them to read and kind of get a little head start,” Granato said. “You kind of feel even though we haven’t been together, we still feel like we’ve been able to do a lot of coaching and getting to know the players a lot better over the past month and a half.”
After a few players experienced travel delays, the U.S. will have its first practice with full attendance Saturday ahead of the tournament opener Feb. 14 against Slovenia. Granato waited for all his players to arrive before convening his first meeting to talk about late general manager Jim Johannson, who died unexpectedly last month at 53. He will be honored with his own locker stall and be thought of during the Olympics.
“We addressed the fact that we’re all in this room is the person that’s not here with us,” Granato said. “We got through that, and we got through the fact that there’s plenty of ways that we will honor him with how we act, how we play. We’re going to do everything we can that he saw in us to give us this opportunity.”
Getting this opportunity because the NHL isn’t participating in the Olympics for the first time since 1994 is something Granato believes helped grow a brotherhood among his 25 players.
“They all realize they have a unique opportunity and they’re very similar in lots of different ways,” he said.