Woodridge, Ill. -- Goaltending always has had iconic status in American hockey, especially in the five-ring Olympic circus.
The reason, perhaps, is that goal is the most important position on the ice, as Team USA coach
In any case red-and-white-and-blue netminders tend to be too effusively celebrated (gold medalists
In Vancouver next February, the Excited States of America will have a chance to attach itself to a new hero or villain. Or in this case, two:
That goaltending tandem doesn't necessarily put American hockey ahead of any other nation -- Canada, Russia, Finland and Sweden all have superb goalies -- but Thomas and Miller do get Team USA back at the adult's table. While DiPietro had swagger and an extraordinarily patriotic mask in Turin, he did not have the requisite consistency to back it up. In a country that viewed the game through a prism other than goaltending, DiPietro might have been remembered not as a goat but as just another piece on a middling team that, in fact, also started two other goalies,
DiPietro was not terrible for a USA team that was bounced by the Finns in the quarterfinals; he merely played well enough to lose, failing to make many big saves. Thomas and Miller clearly are upgrades, especially in tournament play.
"A single-game tournament is different (than a playoff series)," Thomas said. "A hot goalie ... that can make the difference for you."
This will be the first Games for Thomas, the ultimate late bloomer, and Miller, a Hobey Baker-winner from Michigan State. If life hadn't intervened, both might have been part of Olympic teams long before.
Thomas, for example, looked at the long-term schedule and saw that the 1996 Winter Games would be played late in his college career. (More on this later.) If he played well in college, he figured it would be a springboard to a legitimate shot at making the team. Of course, there were no 1996 Olympics in the winter. After Albertville in 1992, the International Olympic Committee began staggering its summer and winter spectacles every two years.
The winter world next gathered in Lillehammer in 1994. Four years later in Nagano, NHL players joined the party. Thomas was out of the picture then, out of college and exiled in Finland at the beginning of a long odyssey that ultimately would make him the first Michigan high school player to make the NHL.
"(The changing calendar) sort of crushed my hopes, my plan growing up," Thomas said the USA Olympic hockey orientation camp, one of only three goalies, along with Miller and
Thomas always had persevered. This week he recounted the story of a U.S. Olympic sports festival in 1993 in San Antonio when, as one of eight goalies, he allowed just one goal in four half-games for the gold-medal winning team. When he found his play wasn't worthy of a berth on the U.S. world junior team --"to make a long story short, I ended up breaking every stick in the backroom" --his coach at the tournament,
The day before Thomas was going to sign with Michigan Tech, Vermont discovered that its goalie had bolted for the Chicago Blackhawks. Beaney recommended Thomas to then Catamount coach
Miller also could have -- indeed probably should have -- been here before. He injured his thumb early in the 2005-06 NHL season, which shelved him at a time then USA general manager
"The night the selections were announced, that was my first game back, against the Flyers," Miller said. "It was a little frustrating, but I understood. That was my first real NHL season, and I only had 10 games in before hurt my thumb. That's really not enough to base an Olympic berth on. Maybe if they had selected the team a month later ... When I came back I won 12 of 13. It was just timing. It didn't happen, but at least I was on the radar then, had a rest (during the Olympics) and (the Sabres) had a great playoff run."
Wilson suggested that he will probably alternate goaltenders in the round-robin games -- Team USA opens against Switzerland, which rode the sizzling
The goalies will have to form some kind of partnership, not easy given the lack of time -- the USA might not even have one practice before its opening match -- and their proximity as competitors for Northeast Division rivals.
"I think I have to play well leading up to the Olympics," said Thomas, who has represented the U.S. in six world championships. "I don't take my spot for granted. The way I focus on competition, it's not me against other goalie. It's me vs. myself."
"I guess it will be based on how the (NHL) season is unfolding," Miller said. "If he's the guy, I want him winning games for the USA. During the season, I wish him well. I just want to beat him on the ice."