Ryan McDonagh can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
McDonagh, the standout defenseman for the New York Rangers, will represent the United States for the first time in his career during the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s a huge honor,” the 24-year-old McDonagh said. “I could say that watching [the Olympics] in 2010, I started dreaming about it and thinking about what it would be like to have the opportunity to wear that jersey and play in the tournament on the biggest stage.
“Now I have that, and I really want to try to make the best of it.”
Long considered a lock to make the team, McDonagh still tried his hardest not to let talk of Olympic consideration distract him prior to the squad’s Jan. 1 announcement at the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, but the suspense always lingered.
“I think I did a pretty good job of not thinking about it too much,” McDonagh said. “A couple times we played in Nashville, and obviously the GM [David Poile, who serves the same with Team USA and the Predators] is there, so there’s a lot of talk then.
“You truly never know. You hear things, and things are said throughout the season, but to find out for certain … it’s something I’m pretty proud of and honored to be part of the team.”
McDonagh figures to be a key part of the U.S. team, too. The Saint Paul, Minn. native is the Rangers’ top defenseman, a unique blend of size and skill, who is charged with shutting down the opposition’s top line on a nightly basis.
He could provide a similar role in Sochi on a defensive corps that includes veterans Ryan Suter, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, in addition to fellow first-time Olympians Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler, John Carlson, and Justin Faulk.
“We really think that this group of players and this team could be great defensively,” said Dan Bylsma, coach of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team.
“We have some experienced guys that have been there before, but we also added some younger players. We think we’re going to be real sound and real good with the guys we have.”
The first thing that jumps out to McDonagh is the experience returning to the 2014 U.S. team, a squad that features 13 Americans who were part of the 2010 silver-medal-winning effort in Vancouver.
“I think it’s perfect. They had a good run with a similar group, so hopefully we can take the next step and accomplish the ultimate goal,” McDonagh said. “Myself, being my first Olympics, I’ll lean on them and try to pick their brains about what to expect, and hopefully we can succeed as a group.”
McDonagh will also have another opportunity to play alongside a close childhood friend on the biggest international stage. New York Rangers’ teammate Derek Stepan was considered to be on the cusp of making the Olympic team, but his worries were put to rest when the team was announced following the Winter Classic.
“I said before, when we were going through the process, it’s hard not to think about it, but at the same time you try your best to focus on what you have in front of you that night … to try and play those games, because that’s going to help you take steps towards the Olympic stage,” Stepan said.
“It’s a great honor. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be there or not, and it’s something that I’m very grateful for.”
McDonagh and Stepan were college teammates at the University of Wisconsin and played on the U.S. team at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in 2011. They also played against each other in high school, McDonagh starring at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul while Stepan played for two years at Hastings High School before moving to the prestigious Shattuck-Saint Mary’s prep school team.
“We’ve come a long way together, starting out playing against each other in high school in Minnesota and on the way to college,” McDonagh said. “Now, we’ll get to wear the USA jersey together. That’s a big stage and that will be real special for us.”
It also means a lot to McDonagh that he will get to share this experience with his teammate and longtime close friend.
“I think we were both pushing for each other, and I’m really happy that we’re both going to get this opportunity,” McDonagh said. “We were able to play at World Championships together, and now we’ll take it to the biggest stage, the Olympic stage, and hopefully come up with something special.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.