PYEONGCHANG, South Korea-Ryan Stoa never allowed himself to set the Olympics as a goal.
What was the point? He knew in his heart it wasn't realistic.
"That dream kind of seemed like it was long gone," Stoa told the Pioneer Press in a phone interview this week. "I knew I was never on the radar with the NHL players in the mix. So I never even let myself think about it."
Heck, even when there was initial chatter that the NHL might not let its players compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 30-year-old Stoa didn't get his hopes up.
"That was a couple of years ago, so everyone kind of assumed that they would end up going," Stoa explained. "We never thought it would be a reality."
Yet there Stoa was this week, sitting on a bus in in Pyeongchang, South Korea-more than 6,000 miles away from where he grew up-making final preparations before the U.S. men's hockey team was scheduled to open play against Slovenia on Wednesday.
"Now that it's a reality," Stoa said before pausing reflectively, "I don't know. It's pretty incredible to think about."
Improbable would be another way to describe Stoa's journey. He grew up in Bloomington, Minn., and made a name for himself as a star at Bloomington Kennedy High School. He parlayed that into an opportunity with the U.S. Development Program and spent two years there before committing to the University of Minnesota.
A second-round pick by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2005 NHL draft, Stoa's career started to take off in parts of four seasons with the Gophers (he took a medical redshirt after missing most of the 2007-08 season). He was named captain for the 2008-09 season and went on to lead WCHA in scoring with 46 points (24 goals, 22 assists) before deciding to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign an entry-level professional contract.
Unfortunately for Stoa, he never gained traction in parts of five seasons in the NHL, spending most of his time in the minors and starting to lose passion for the game. In a last-ditch effort to prolong his career, Stoa signed a contract to play overseas in Russian at the start of the 2014-15 season.
"When I left the NHL, I kind of felt like I was getting to the end of my career," Stoa said. "That first year in the KHL kind of rejuvenated me and made me really love the game again."
He has been playing there ever since.
"It was obviously a big life decision," Stoa added, crediting his wife, Clare, with being supportive. "I'm lucky. She's been amazing throughout this journey. I couldn't do it without it."
The Stoas live in Fort Myers, Fla., during the offseason, though he said he'll always be a Minnesotan at heart.
"Yeah," Stoa said. "I don't think that'll ever go away."
As of now, though, he's taking extreme pride in being an American, donning the red, white and blue, living out a dream he never thought possible.
"I've grown up a lot over the years," Stoa said. "I'm just going to go out there and be myself and try to enjoy the ride."