Barry Svrluga – Washington Post
Maybe it makes sense that the path to the Olympics from the decidedly temperate, Mid-Atlantic locale of Vienna, Va., in the decidedly frigid sport of ice hockey wasn’t a straight line. Maybe it makes sense that for Garrett Roe to become a center on the U.S. Olympic hockey team that his meandering road had to be from the Washington suburbs to Minnesota to Indiana back to Minnesota to Upstate New York to Austria and Germany, Sweden and, currently, Switzerland.
“I really think it’s mind-blowing,” said Garrett’s father, Larry, an integral figure in the development of youth hockey in suburban Washington.
Garrett Roe isn’t an NHL player, and the NHL is sitting out the Olympics for the first time since 1994. But to be clear, Garrett Roe has devoted his life to hockey, and his status as a journeyman pro in Europe doesn’t mean he’s not a deserving Olympian. He will turn 30 before the Games are over. Most American hockey fans will see him play for the first time at the upcoming PyeongChang Games. And yet . . .
“I don’t expect this year, when I’m 29, to be my best year,” Roe said. “I think my game’s trending great right now. I expect to have a long career.”
Roe said this by phone from the apartment he shares with his wife — also a Vienna native — in Zug, Switzerland, a town of roughly 30,000 people less than 25 miles south of Zurich . There, he is in his first season playing for EV Zug, for whom he has recorded 34 assists and 45 points in 39 games, numbers that place him second and fourth, respectively, in Switzerland’s National League.
Roe is in Europe both by choice and by necessity. His first season with Zug follows an initial foray with Salzburg, Austria, in 2013-14, then a season with Munich in the German league, then two years with Linkoping in southern Sweden. These could seem like hockey outposts, physically thousands of miles from the NHL, seemingly even further from the spotlight. But when the world’s best league couldn’t reach a deal to return its players to the Olympics, national federations had to turn to every corner of the globe where their countrymen were playing to field teams for South Korea. And in Zug, USA Hockey found a talented forward drinking in the world.
“I think it’s been one of the best things I could’ve done,” Roe said. “I’ve lived in a couple of different countries and had a great experience in every place. I’ve met new people, been able to experience different cultures. My wife and I, you kind of immerse yourself in the European lifestyle and culture. You learn things you wouldn’t learn somewhere else.”
That, too, could be said about the entirety of Roe’s career. He has learned things he wouldn’t learn somewhere else.
When Garrett was growing up as the youngest of three boys in Vienna, he had a typical athletic mentorship. His older brothers both played hockey. His father took up coaching. He followed them to the rink. That he grew hooked isn’t all that surprising. That he was talented perhaps was.
“He was very good at that age because of his speed,” said Red Gendron, a hockey lifer who has coached in college, in juniors, in the minors and in the NHL. “But mostly, he’s a very tenacious, extraordinarily competitive player. He had speed and skill, but his competitive spirit and his innate tenacity is what was able to put him over the top.”
Gendron is now the coach at the University of Maine, but back then he ran hockey camps. Larry Roe had helped found the Reston Raiders hockey program back when rinks were hard to come by in suburban Washington. Fairfax County isn’t exactly Toronto or Boston. The ponds don’t freeze regularly enough. Hockey can be a tough ask.
But when Roe and others helped start the Raiders in 1993, they found a latent yearning for hockey. The first day of registration, 100 kids signed up. By the second or third year, parents were sleeping out on a Friday night in July so they could be assured of one of the limited spots in the growing club when sign-ups opened Saturday morning.
“Larry Roe,” Gendron said, “is one of those guys who has done a lot of good things for a lot of kids.”
This environment, it produced an Olympian — but not on its own. As Garrett grew, he also became an exceptional soccer player, one gifted enough that he was in a national pool of 30 players for U.S. Soccer’s under-15 team. All this athletic potential was coming to a head.
“He was probably a little bit better in soccer than he was in hockey,” Larry Roe said. “But he basically said, ‘I love soccer. But my passion is hockey.’ ”
His passion, then, took him to a place not typical for kids who go to Wolftrap Elementary and Kilmer Middle School. He went to Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn.
“I absolutely fell in love with the place,” Roe said.
For an aspiring hockey player, what’s not to like? One of his classmates was Kyle Okposo, a forward who’s now in his 11th year in the NHL. On the prep team, just ahead of Roe, was none other than Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews, a future Chicago Blackhawks star, arrived the following year. The father of 13-year NHL veteran Zach Parise helped with Roe’s transition.
“It’s just a hockey factory,” Roe said. “I really can’t say enough good things about that place.”
And yet he left early. Back then, Gendron — who had gotten to know the Roes through youth hockey and the USA Hockey system — had taken over a junior franchise in Indianapolis, the Indiana Ice of the U.S. Hockey League . And he wanted Garrett Roe to play for him, even though in his first season of 2004-05, Roe was only 16, and the USHL allows players as old as 20.
“Sometimes players, when they’re overmatched physically, will back down a little bit,” Gendron said. “He took an awful lot of punishment as a young player, but he hung in there to make plays. He’s a tough cat.”
So Roe was off on his hockey path. At St. Cloud State back in Minnesota, he played in the formidable Western Collegiate Hockey Association and became the school’s all-time leader in assists . He broke into the professional ranks as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers organization, playing for the Adirondack Phantoms in the American Hockey League, one step from the NHL.
And then came something of a crossroads: As Roe headed into his second season in Adirondack, the NHL prepared to lock out its players in a labor dispute. The Flyers, like most clubs, sent many of their prospects who straddled the AHL and NHL levels back to the minors. Roe, slated to be the top-line center, was bumped back in the lineup. When the lockout ended in January, Roe moved back up. But then he hurt his shoulder. All around, the year was kind of lousy, and he became a bit disillusioned.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth,” Roe said.
The following summer came the offer to play in Austria. Even though some NHL clubs said they were interested, this was guaranteed money. “A bird in hand,” Larry Roe said. So Garrett jumped across the Atlantic. Five years later, he thinks about it still.
“I always tell people: I don’t regret it, because I’m happy with how things have gone in my life,” Roe said. “But at the same time, if I could do it over again, I’d probably try to take another shot at it at home. I’m a big believer in betting on yourself and believing in yourself. In that case, I don’t think I bet on myself.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Screw this. I’m over it.’ But it was like, ‘You know what? Let’s see if there’s a different path.’ ”
That path has now led somewhere new. In the week after Christmas, Roe received a voice mail from Jim Johannson, the general manager of USA Hockey who died unexpectedly Jan. 21. Johannson’s message was simple and calm: Call me. When they spoke, the message was equally simple and calm: Congratulations on becoming an Olympian. Now let’s go to work.
So the kid who used to drive around the Beltway to Capital Centre to watch Peter Bondra and his Capitals go to work, the one who now lists Caps center Nicklas Backstrom as his favorite NHL player — now he will go to South Korea to try to win a gold for his country. What a path.
“It didn’t become real until the day it happened,” Roe said. “Now who knows where it’ll lead?”