Rollerblading around their unfinished basement, beating up the walls with their slap shots, Jackson and Noah Cates had no idea one of them was an Olympian in the making.

The two brothers spent hours playing hockey together in the basement, with their mom, Jenny, announcing their names as if they were a part of the Stillwater (Minn.) Ponies, University of Minnesota Golden Gophers or the Minnesota Wild. They spent even more hours thinking about hockey when they had to go upstairs. They watched Miracle and thought it was “the coolest movie ever,” but their dreams of being on Team USA seemed to be just that — dreams.

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“Obviously, every four years, it’s not really on the radar much or talked about,” Noah said. Jackson added that it’s more than just dreaming of making the NHL. It’s dreaming of making the NHL and then being one of the most elite players in the league.

“It’s the best of the best, fighting for your country,” said Jackson, a Flyers center.

But then the NHL announced on Dec. 22 that its players would not participate in the Olympics due to its schedule being “materially disrupted” by COVID-19. For Noah, the Olympic dream suddenly became attainable.

The brothers have played almost a decade of organized hockey together, from their pee-wee teams to their 2017-18 national championship team at Minnesota-Duluth. Counting the basement, Jackson noted, they’ve been playing together for 20 years.

As the older brother, Jackson, 24, has always reached each new level first, including the NHL. On April 23, 2021, Jackson, who went undrafted, made his NHL debut with the Flyers. The Flyers drafted Noah in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL draft, and he electedto stay in college and finish out his degree.

The year made a difference. While Jackson, as an NHL player, would not be permitted to participate in the Olympics, Noah, who turns 23 next month, qualified as a college player. The possibility of making the team immediately jumped on his radar, especially with the knowledge that college players went to the 2018 Olympics. That said, Noah still didn’t expect to be representing his country on the biggest stage.

Jackson was sitting in his hotel room on the West Coast, quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 3, when he got the text that Noah was going to the Olympics. Jackson could sense his brother’s excitement, making it a bright spot amid the frustration of quarantine.

Noah had already lived one of their other dreams when he played for the U.S. at the 2019 World Junior Championships, and he thinks that played a huge part in his selection. John Vanbiesbrouck, Team USA’s general manager, as well as several other coaches, had been around Noah at the World Juniors and saw what he’s all about. Said Jackson: “The biggest thing that makes him him is [his] passion for the game of hockey and how he would do anything for his team to win.”

The Olympics are a bonus to Noah’s decision to stay another year in college. No matter what, he said he’d be happy with his choice because he is getting his degree. But the time has also helped him round out his game. As Jackson said, there’s no such thing as “overcooking” the development of a college hockey player, and he’s seen his little brother mature and grow. Noah, a senior, has seven goals and 17 points this season in 24 games.

“So when he comes in and plays the bigger, faster, stronger, older pro players, he’ll be just that much more ready,” Jackson said.

Jackson’s professional hockey experience has also confirmed Noah’s decision. Over the past two seasons, Jackson has been back and forth between the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Phantoms, the taxi squad, and the NHL roster. It’s a draining process, and it requires a mentality for which players can’t “get too set on anything.”

“I think that would have been tough for me if I would have signed and played pro this year, just the mental side of it,” Noah said. “So just kind of seeing him go through and how professional he is about it is really going to help me moving forward.”

As the older brother, Jackson was bigger than Noah for most of their lives. He is listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds, and Noah at 6-1, 179. The hours battling each other in the basement forced Noah to be more competitive. Getting to take their game from the cement floor to the ice has been “special,” Noah says, and he hopes they’ll get to skate together again with the Flyers.

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They hope the Olympic experience will help Noah’s chances of joining his brother and the Flyers. Team USA will feature AHL players who don’t have NHL contracts, as well as professional players who play in Europe. Noah said he’s excited to see what it’s like to play with them and to learn from them.

After the Olympic rosters were announced, both Cates brothers heard from people throughout the Flyers and Phantoms.

“I think it’s definitely good for the organization, just to get the fans, everyone, excited for someone to cheer for, for their team and whatnot at the Olympics while the NHL players aren’t there,” Jackson said.

It hasn’t quite sunk in for either brother. Noah expects it will once he gets to the Olympic Village, while Jackson thinks it will be once he sees his brother skating in a game. Normally, Jackson catches the Olympics when he’s free, but this year he’ll be making sure he has it on from the Opening Ceremonies. And hopefully, his brother will pass along some Team USA gear, maybe a “sweatshirt or hat or something,” when he returns.