It’s every young American hockey player’s dream to one day to lace up their skates for Team USA and play for a chance to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

For Boston College captain Marc McLaughlin, who grew up in Billerica, that dream jumped ahead when the National Hockey League decided it wouldn’t be sending its players to the Olympics after COVID-19 threw a wrench into its regular season.

With no NHL talent available, Team USA tapped players who were playing professionally in other leagues or are still in college like McLaughlin, a senior who plays forward.

More than half of the roster is currently in college, and Boston’s a force on the rink. McLaughlin and Drew Helleson left for Beijing from Chestnut Hill, Nick Abruzzese and Sean Farrell came from Harvard and Drew Commesso made his way to the Olympics from Boston University.

McLaughlin’s choice on whether to play was a no-brainer.

“Soon as I got the call, it was a pretty easy decision for me, and I’m super honored to represent our country,” he said.

He and the other college players are taking up the spots usually reserved for the nation’s best pros as the United States tries to end a 12-year medal drought in men’s hockey at the Olympics.

Four years ago, U.S. hockey was in a similar situation after the NHL decided to not send players to Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of financial and scheduling concerns. That time around, a majority of the players on the Olympic roster were playing professionally in leagues outside the NHL, with a few college players in the mix. This time the balance is nearly flipped.

But the Games come at a key moment in the college hockey season, and Boston College was hit especially hard by Olympic call-ups, with two players leaving mid-season to play for Team USA and forward Jack McBain going home up north to suit up for Canada's national team.

“Your first thoughts are divided,” said Jerry York, Boston College’s head coach. “’Cause you know the effect that this could have on your particular team. But then it’s overcome by, ‘What an opportunity for these three young men.’ ... This might be the only time these three players can actually go to the Olympics.”

York said that the Olympics essentially takes away three of the team’s top players for the month of February, when the postseason is just around the corner and the local Beanpot is being held for the first time since 2020. Currently, the team is in a slump with a record below .500. But York points out that his players should be able to return in time to close out the regular season.

McLaughlin, 22, feels mixed, knowing that his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes at the cost of leaving the Eagles at a crucial juncture.

“I don’t think there was hesitation just ‘cause of how big of an opportunity this is. You don’t get many chances to go to the Olympics,” he said. “But I can say it’s obviously an extremely hard decision. And there’s a lot of downside to it because you’re leaving your team behind and putting them in a little bit of a tough spot.”

But McLaughlin has faith that his team will step up in the absence of the three players. Just as York has faith in his players who are in Beijing. And he thinks the squad of largely college athletes has a chance to do some damage.

Beijing Olympics Ice Hockey
United States' Ben Meyers goes for the puck in front of Germany's Korbinian Holzer (5) during a preliminary round men's hockey game at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Petr David Josek/AP AP

“Every college player that was tapped to play on the U.S. Olympic team, eventually, next year or two years from now, will be in the National Hockey League,” he said. “So, they’re very talented players. I think with Dave Quinn [who played and coached at Boston University], who I have great respect for as the coach, I think they’re gonna have a chance to really surprise and do some special things in the Olympics.”

Hockey runs in McLaughlin's family. His brother Sean played at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and his sister Kristine played at the University of New England in Maine.

Sean, 30, said that Marc has always been able to adapt to every level of hockey where he’s played, so him getting the call didn’t come as too much of a surprise, even it’s a little mind blowing to see his younger brother in the Olympics.

“He’s put in so much work and so much sacrifice over the last 10 years or so, so for that to fall in line was unbelievable,” he said.

While Sean says he’s never been too nervous when it comes to actually playing, the prospect of watching his brother on the Olympic ice has him dealing with a whole new range of emotions.

“You never feel it when you’re playing hockey and you’re on the ice,” he said. “But now that I have to sit in the stands and watch, every single game is just incredibly nerve-wracking. I don’t know how my parents have done it for so many years. Obviously, that’s heightened, and there’s another element added to it when it’s on the international stage.”

The early signs are positive: Team USA beat China 8–0 to open their schedule. Harvard’s Ferrell had a hat trick in that outing, and Boston University’s Commesso picked up 29 saves while also becoming, at 19, the youngest player to ever start for the U.S. men in the Olympics.

The Americans continued to impress after their debut, taking down Canada and Germany to go undefeated in their group and earn an automatic spot in the quarterfinals.

But there's still a long way to go for the squad. For Marc McLaughlin, the goal for the team is simple.

“I think the message from the start was that this is a young team, but we have a ton of skill,” he said. “And we have a lot of really good players that know how to play the game the right way. And the number-one goal in mind is to go over there and win a gold medal.”