PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - U.S. Olympic hockey goaltender Ryan Zapolski is used to being somebody that no one knows.
“It’s been that was my whole life, my whole career,” Zapolski told Reuters on Monday following a team news conference. “Nobody knows who I am wherever I go.”
Of course, being the probable starting netminder for a U.S. men’s team at the Pyeongchang Games might change that just a bit.
It has been 38 years since the United States won Olympic hockey gold, and it is the first time since 1994 that they are chasing that dream without NHL players leading the charge. So the task has fallen to Zapolski and a cast of 24 other relative unknown journeymen.
“It’s exciting for me to be here and obviously we’re going to do the best we can and prove some people wrong,” said Zapolski, who plays on the Helsinki team Jokerit in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
At 6-feet even and 185 pounds, Zapolski doesn’t fill the net the way a lot of NHL goalies do, but he’s pretty sharp at keeping the puck out of the goal nonetheless. He has the KHL’s sixth highest save percentage, fourth-lowest goals against average and boasts a league-leading nine shutouts.
Playing in the KHL also gives him particular insight into the tournament’s most stacked roster - the Olympic Athletes from Russia. He’s not overly worried about facing a team anchored by future NHL Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk or former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk, the KHL’s points leader.
“We have pretty good mix of youth and experience,” Zapolski said of his team mates. “That’s a good thing for us because we’ve got the young kids here and they’ve got a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the locker room, which is great to see. Of course Russia has the superstar names that maybe we don’t have but that’s fine with us. We like being the underdog.”
Should the Americans pull off the improbable and win gold, invariably Zapolski will draw comparisons to Jim Craig, the no-name goaltender who leapt to prominence for his role on the 1980 team.
“I‘m not Jim Craig, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen,” he said. “If we win I‘m sure the comparisons will be there but that’s not really my concern. I‘m just trying to do the best I can and help us win.”
Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty