Column: U.S. strategy to go young pays off as men’s hockey team beats Canada 4-2

Brendan Brisson, left, scores a hockey goal at the 2022 Olympics
The United States’ Brendan Brisson, left, scores a goal against Canada goalkeeper Eddie Pasquale (80) during the Winter Olympics on Saturday in Beijing.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

Building their roster around college kids, while giving those kids enough freedom to be creative and enough structure to feel secure, paid off again with a victory for the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team.

A clever backhander by Brendan Brisson of Manhattan Beach and the University of Michigan held up as the winning goal Saturday as the U.S. defeated Canada 4-2 in preliminary-round play at National Indoor Stadium and improved to 2-0. Brisson, drafted 29th by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2020, is one of 15 college players on the U.S. roster. They’ve brought enthusiasm, energy and impressive skills to a team that’s coming together more cohesively than they might have imagined when the withdrawal of NHL players in December left little time to create and execute a Plan B.

“We have a really good coaching staff, and all the older guys have been really important to us so far, just teaching us things,” said Brisson, a former L.A. Junior King. “And it’s all about just dialing in, knowing where to be on the ice and just trusting the process.


“You grow up watching the Olympics and imagine scoring a goal and winning games here. It’s just been amazing so far.”

The Americans showed poise in erasing an early deficit and turned the game around with their relentless forecheck.

“We thought that was going to be our identity,” coach David Quinn said. “We didn’t want to overwhelm our players with structure. We wanted obviously to have structure, but we want to let them loose a little bit and play to their strengths.

“That’s our strength: the ability to skate, stay on top of people, don’t put ourselves in a position where we’re overthinking the situation. Play with conviction. And when we do, we have a chance to be successful.”

Mat Robinson scored for Canada one minute and 24 seconds into the game, surprising U.S. goaltender Strauss Mann with a quick shot that went between Mann’s pads. But U.S. team captain Andy Miele responded at 2:34 by lifting a backhander that Canada goalie Eddie Pasquale couldn’t reach.

The Americans took the lead at 18:44 of the period when Ben Meyers of the University of Minnesota finished off a nice passing play and scored from close range. Defenseman Jake Sanderson of the University of North Dakota, who was chosen fifth by Ottawa in the 2020 NHL draft, made the play possible and was rewarded with an assist in his Olympic debut. He had missed the tournament-opening 8-0 rout of China because he was delayed in clearing COVID protocols.

“Going down 1-0 early, I thought that was some good adversity for us. We didn’t face too much in the first game,” said U.S. forward Brian O’Neill, the lone holdover from the team of mainly older, Europe-based pros that finished seventh at Pyeongchang in 2018. “That was a really good test early in this game. And then to get that second goal, after that it felt like we got to our game and we dictated the middle part of that game.”

Brisson, the son of influential agent Pat Brisson of the Creative Artists Agency, extended the Americans’ lead to 3-1 at 2:37 of the second period. Pasquale went behind his net to play the puck but lost it to Nate Smith, who found former King Nick Shore. He, in turn, passed to Brisson.

Counting on young legs to carry them, the U.S. men’s hockey team shut out China in a tournament without NHL players because of COVID disruptions.

“They threw it to me and I just happened to be there and I put the puck in the net,” Brisson said. “We’re going to get a lot of chances from our forecheck.”

Quinn had high praise for Brisson, who had scored a goal in the opener.

“He’s a special player. He’s got special abilities,” Quinn said. “And the things he’s getting better at are the things that everybody can do. And that’s what talented players need to understand, that if they can do things that everybody can do on top of things people can’t do, you have a chance to be a special player. I just like the direction his game’s going, I really do.”

Canada cut the U.S. lead to 3-2 at 14:13 of the second period, when Corban Knight finished off a two-on-one shorthanded break with a shot that zipped past Mann’s right shoulder. But Miele, with dogged work, set up Kenny Agostino for a shot from the high slot and a 4-2 lead at 6:13 of the third period.

Two late penalties put the U.S. down two men at 15:23 of the third period, and Ducks prospect Mason McTavish hit the crossbar after those penalties had expired, but the Americans held on for the win.

Quinn said his team became too soft with the puck in the later stages, which fueled Canada’s offense. But on the whole, the Americans had little to complain about. They’ve certainly got a lot to look forward to as their kids progress through the Olympic tournament.

“I think most of those college players are going to have a better pro career than I ever had, so I’m really excited to see what they do the rest of their pro careers,” said O’Neill, 33, a former Yale standout who played 22 NHL games and has most recently played for Jokerit in Russia’s KHL.

“And that’s what’s so exciting about this tournament for them. They have their whole career ahead of them. A lot of us are at the end of our careers, the six or eight guys that are in Europe, so I’m excited to see what they’re going to do with their 10, 15 years coming up.”

Not to mention the next week or so here.