Hall of Famer Mike Modano was a member of three U.S. Olympic men’s hockey teams. They were filled with NHL stars, but they managed to take home just one medal, a silver in 2002.
If the NHL sends its players to the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy, the Americans will have another team filled with familiar names: Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, the Hughes and Tkachuk brothers, and the deepest goaltending pool in the nation’s history.
When Modano looks at those players, he sees Olympic gold.
“God, that roster’s pretty solid. They’ll all be in their prime. They’ll all be very hungry,” Modano told ESPN. “I would say since the 1990s, that’s probably the best one we could have.”
The 2026 Olympics offer the moment USA Hockey has been waiting for since the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, the last time the men’s national team won gold at the Winter Olympics.
It’s the moment when young players who first picked up a stick to be like Mike Modano or Patrick Kane have become established stars. When teams are drafting from regions seeded with talent from 30 years of NHL expansion. When the best-of-the-best American players are comparable to those on Canada, a country that has been the best-of-the-best for over 20 years in international competition.
“I think it’s probably the deepest player pool for Team USA. There are so many high-end superstars now that are American,” said Boston Bruins winger James van Riemsdyk, who represented the U.S. in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
The Sochi Games marked the last appearance for NHL players in the Olympics. The last “best-on-best” tournament for the U.S. was the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. An entire generation of American players have entered the NHL since then, ascending quickly to elite status.
They’ve never had the chance to represent their country on the Olympic stage. But they know the potential for this 2026 team. The potential for greatness.
The potential for gold.
“I’ve definitely dreamt about it,” said Ottawa Senators winger Brady Tkachuk, who entered the NHL in 2018-19. “Hopefully when the opportunity arises, I can make that team. It’d be a dream come true. And it’d be a dream to do that alongside Matthew, too.”
Matthew Tkachuk shares that dream.
“I’m really hoping that we get the chance to play and that I have a chance to play with my brother,” said the Florida Panthers star. “It’s obviously something that’s a bucket list thing for us. I’m hoping we could do it for Team USA.”
Matthews was almost an Olympian in 2022, having been named to the U.S. men’s national team roster before the NHL opted not to send its players to Beijing. The potential for this generation of American players had Matthews thinking big.
“Gold is absolutely on our minds,” Matthews said at the time.
It should be again if the NHL goes to Italy in 2026.
Team USA 2026 roster projection
For years, Team USA lacked the kind of high-end talent that Canada could boast with players like Sidney Crosby.
But Matthews, Jack and Quinn Hughes, Matthew Tkachuk and Eichel are all players that can make critical plays at critical times in the game. For the first time in recently memory, the U.S. will have game-changers, too.
“I think you’re spot on about that,” Pat Kelleher, the executive director of USA Hockey, told ESPN. “We’ve always had unbelievable support at the grassroots level, and that translates up the ladder to creating our high-end players.”
Here’s what a potential Team USA roster for the 2026 Winter Olympics could look like:
There are many areas of strength in this lineup. Chief among them is the center spot, which hasn’t been this strong since the 1990s when Team USA had players like Modano, Pat Lafontaine, Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk.
“The coolest part is seeing how the center position has become the biggest difference over the last 10 years. Where you’re getting like these really, really high-end players at that position,” van Riemsdyk said.
“We know that those guys can control the whole game just with the different situations they’re in, taking faceoffs and drive driving play, stuff like that. To have that many guys to choose from is definitely a pretty good thing.”
Kelleher said a key moment in creating this unprecedented depth for the program was around 2009, when USA Hockey rolled out a new development model.
“It’s essentially our blueprint for developing all youth hockey players. Not just Jack Hughes or Matthew Tkachuk, but every player. From the ground up, we’re just aligned across the board on the best path for kids to have a great hockey experience,” he said. “If you do that with 6- or 7-year-olds, we believe you have more kids that are going to stay in hockey and have a chance to develop to the best of their ability.”
It’s become a running joke that Team Canada could take all the players that didn’t make its roster and create a “Canadian B-Team” that could probably win a medal. While the U.S. roster might not run that deep, the players that miss our projected 2026 roster is star-studded group:
There are few veteran players here that might have aged off the roster by 2026, in Kane and Pavelski. There are a few younger players that could end up bigger stars than they are currently, like Cooley and Zegras. In many cases, there are forwards and defensemen here that could easily swap in for the depth players on our projected roster, and the team would be just as good.
The Americans are even deeper in the crease than they are at center. Connor Hellebuyck has a Vezina Trophy win. Jake Oettinger and Thatcher Demko are among the league’s best. Gibson and Swayman could build a case to move ahead of any of them.
Kelleher said USA Hockey has “put an emphasis on goaltending” over the last decade by helping to create a long-range objective for the position called “51 in 30.” That meant by the year 2030, the plan is to have American-born goaltenders play 51% of the minutes played in men’s and women’s professional hockey leagues.
“That’s been the rallying cry. The mantra of ’51 in 30′ has helped align everyone,” he said.
Kelleher said one of the things USA Hockey has stressed is not to “pigeonhole” a young player as a goaltender. To give them the fundamental basics of the game as a skater, and then allow them to circle back to goalie development if they choose to learn the position.
“Frankly, our goalie group has done a very good job of trying to take the weirdness out of being a goalie, so that families can jump on board a little bit more easily,” he said.
The Americans’ depth in goal gives then an advantage over most other Olympic contenders — including their arch rivals from Canada.
USA vs. Canada
While the Americans have a generation of players that have yet to represent their country in a “best-on-best” tournament, so too do the Canadians.
McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon were both on Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016. Cale Makar, Brayden Point, Mitchell Marner, Mathew Barzal and Connor Bedard all debuted in the NHL after that tournament, and have never represented Canada in a “best-on-best” event.
“It would mean everything to me,” McDavid told ESPN. “I feel like guys my age — Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon to some degree — those guys that had to play on the U23 team, we all haven’t had the chance to play hockey on the biggest stage.”
These players should get their first chance to compete together for the U.S. and Canada in 2025. While the NHL and the NHLPA couldn’t organize another World Cup given the backlash against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they are planning a “four nations” tournament that will feature Sweden, Finland, the U.S. and Canada.
The tournament would offer McDavid his first chance to play alongside Pittsburgh Penguins star and Canadian hockey legend Sidney Crosby.
“I would love to be his teammate. I would love to represent our country together,” McDavid said. “Somebody asked me earlier today, ‘What’s the Mount Rushmore of hockey?’ And I certainly had Sid on there. So to play with someone like that, and have a chance to do something special, [like] win a gold medal for your country … I know he’s done it a few times, but I would hope he feels the same way. I think it would be really cool.”
While the Americans are trying to win their first gold medal since 1980, the Canadians are trying to maintain their level of excellence, having won gold three times in tournaments involving NHL players (2002, 2010 and 2014). Canada has beaten the U.S. in four of their five Olympic matchups since the NHL started sending players in 1998.
But this edition of the rivalry could be different.
The Americans’ depth at forward rivals that of Canada, and they have a considerable advantage in goaltending. The days of Team Canada having Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Carey Price in the crease for international tournaments are over. Canada’s current goalie pool consists of NHL players like Jordan Binnington, Carter Hart, Tristan Jarry and Darcy Kuemper, along with up-and-comers like Devon Levi.
No matter the advantages on paper, Modano said the key to beating Canada is to play like the Canadians do.
“I think the one thing with Canada was that they were able to set all their egos aside. They had all these star players, but they played within the team, you know? That’s what really made those guys so good,” he said.
“That’s also what made our World Cup team so special. We were just able to put everything aside, didn’t care what they were doing on their other team. You found your roles, and it might be different than what you normally do on your own team. So Jack Hughes might play in a different role than he does in New Jersey. You find your little role in your niche.”
Whatever his role ends up being, Jack Hughes wants to play in the 2026 Winter Games.
“Of course we want to play in the Olympics. You dream of playing in the NHL and then you watch Sid win a gold medal against the U.S. and you watch Kaner play in Olympics. Those are your idols. You want to be there too,” he said. “So it’d be a really disappointing situation if NHL didn’t send players to the Olympics in Italy.”
The waiting game
The last time the NHL sent players to the Olympics was Sochi 2014. The U.S. lost to Canada in the semifinals and then lost to Finland in the bronze medal game.
The last time the U.S. played in a “best-on-best” style tournament was the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where they lost all three games and didn’t make it out of group play.
Of course, the World Cup was a “best-on-best” in name only, with two teams invented for the tournament: Team Europe, which was a landing spot for players whose home countries weren’t represented by national teams in the tournament; and Team North America, a 23-and-under squad of American and Canadian players that was the most entertaining squad in the preseason event.
“That was a blast. I think anybody that had an opportunity to play on that team would have said the same. It was the best hockey that we had seen in a really long time. Just the opportunity to play against other countries at that stage,” Matthews said. “I hadn’t played in the NHL yet. So I felt really lucky to have that experience.”
While “TNA” was a memorable novelty, it siphoned off a lot of talent that would have helped bolster Team USA, including Matthews, Eichel, Larkin, Gaudreau, Jones, Miller and Hellebuyck.
It was expected those young stars would all play for the U.S. in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But the NHL opted not to allow its players to participate in that tournament, citing the Board of Governors’ displeasure with the terms set forth by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the NHLPA.
Players were crushed. They sought to ensure future Olympic participation in their 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL. The two sides committed to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics “subject to negotiation of terms acceptable to each of the NHL, NHLPA, and IIHF (and/or IOC).”
Participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics looked like it was going to happen, and not just because of the CBA mandate. The NHL valued the Chinese market more than it did South Korea, having held events there in the previous decade. USA Hockey went as far to announce the first three players selected for the team in Oct. 2021: Matthews, Kane and Jones.
Behind the scenes, other players thought the NHL was going to give the green light on Beijing, too.
“There were Zoom calls and meetings and everybody gearing up, with the expectation that we were going. It got to a point where it started to feel real,” Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said.
How close was participation in the Beijing Games? McAvoy said he filled out a form and sent in his sizes for the Ralph Lauren outfit he would have worn during Opening Ceremonies.
But for the NHL, participation in the Beijing Olympics hung on whether or not their 2021-22 regular season was “materially impacted” by COVID-19 game postponements.
Which, they decided, it ultimately was.
On Dec. 21, 2021, the NHL and NHLPA issued a joint statement announcing that players would not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Beijing after all. Just like in 2018, the U.S. men’s national team would be a collection of college athletes, minor leaguers and pro players from foreign leagues.
“We have waited as long as possible to make this decision while exploring every available option to enable our players to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “Unfortunately, given the profound disruption to the NHL’s regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events — 50 games already have been postponed through Dec. 23 — Olympic participation is no longer feasible.”
McAvoy said that he’s “honestly still upset” by that decision, two years later.
“That one that sucked because it’s been forever a dream of mine to play in the Olympics, you know? It was like, ‘OK, we didn’t play enough games, so we’re not going to go.’ And you just lose out on the chance. Just like that,” he said, with a snap of his fingers. “You saw some of the Russian players that were like, ‘Well, what if I just go anyway? What are they going to do?’ We didn’t get a chance to fight back on that.”
No NHL players broke ranks to play in Beijing. Their attention turned to Italy 2026, the other Olympic Games in which they collectively bargained to take part.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said talks are ongoing with the IOC about 2026. The league wants “expenses reimbursed in the same way they’ve been reimbursed before,” including travel and insurance costs.
“Our players have typically been insured for the full values of their contracts,” he said.
At the NHL Board of Governors meetings in Seattle this week, Bettman noted that the league had a new concern: That Italy 2026 hadn’t started construction on the arena that’ll house the Olympic hockey tournament.
“Normally, when you build a building for the Olympics for a hockey tournament, it’s done a year in advance,” Bettman said. “You have time to have events, test it, build the ice, and do that. They’re projecting it won’t be done until the fourth quarter of 2025, which is six or eight weeks before the Olympics. That’s if they are on time, and I think they are already late. But that’s nothing we can control.”
As of now, NHL players are waiting to hear if they’re going to the Olympics, or if the league will find a reason not to send them, from finances to concerns about arena construction.
It’s an uncomfortably familiar spot for Charlie McAvoy.
“All you can do is hope, right?” he said. “That you have the chance to go.”
And with it, the chance to win Olympic gold for the first time since the “Miracle.”
Modano remembers being at a Silver Stick hockey tournament in Port Huron when everyone stopped what they were doing and crowded around a 20-inch black-and-white television in the lobby. It was February 1980. The U.S. men’s hockey team was playing the Soviet Union. They were about to make a generation of young players believe in miracles.
Some consider it the greatest achievement in American sports history. The U.S. victory in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey — two straight wins in Montreal — didn’t have the same cultural cachet, but was a “miracle” for its own generation of players.
“There’s now players for whom 1996 was a huge part of their lifetime. Look at the Tkachuk brothers and their dad playing in the World Cup — that victory was so impactful,” Kelleher said. “Sadly, it was 27 years ago. So we’re due.”
Matthew Tkachuk said his father Keith’s pride in representing the U.S. in international tournaments rubbed off on his sons.
“My dad played in a bunch of ’em. He just told me how amazing it was. Any time you have a chance to put on the jersey, it’s so special. I can only imagine the Olympics,” the Panthers forward said.
Brady Tkachuk said Olympic gold would make for an unbelievable moment for his family and his compatriots.
“It definitely would be a dream come true to win a gold medal with your brother, for sure,” he said. “But there’s a lot of great players in the U.S. We do have a lot of great, tight buddies from playing together at the U.S. program or college. And if that were to come about, we’d definitely take advantage of it. It’d be a special moment for us as a family, but also for all the connections we had growing up.”
A victory for USA Hockey in 2026 would be the product of decades of groundwork. For example, from 1977 to 2004, the U.S. won a single world junior championship. From 2010-21, they won four of them.
McAvoy played on two U20 world junior championship teams. In 2016, he won bronze in Finland. That team included potential Olympians like Matthew Tkachuk, Matthews, Alex DeBrincat and Zach Werenski. He won gold the following year on a team that featured Adam Fox, Tage Thompson, Clayton Keller, Troy Terry and Oettinger.
“There were a lot of guys that have potential to be on that [Olympic] team,” McAvoy said.
Kelleher takes pride in that world junior tournament success, but eyes the bigger prize.
“We’ve just gotta knock down that last wall to win at the top level on the men’s side,” he said. “Because it will mean the continued growth of the game. It’ll mean more focus and emphasis within our country on hockey.”
The Miracle on Ice still defines American Olympic hockey. For 43 years, other U.S. national teams have tried to create their own golden moments, only to fall short.
Kelleher believes that could change in 2026 and can’t imagine what it could mean for USA Hockey.
“To have the whole country behind us in the Olympics would be pretty significant for hockey in this country, in just about every aspect of the sport,” he said.