By Sarah Kwak
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Nearly four years removed from the 2010 Olympic Games, when it came within an overtime goal of winning gold, Team USA can no longer claim underdog status. The U.S. can’t downplay its skills or its level of experience on the Olympic stage. It can’t expect to fly under the radar while all the attention goes to teams from Canada and Russia. It can’t be so sure anymore that no one would bet a dime on the Red, White and Blue to win it all, as former general manager Brian Burke had so often said in the months before Vancouver. The days of softened expectations for American hockey are gone.
“[Burke] in Vancouver gave the players great cover, if you will,” said David Poile, the GM for Team USA. “He lowered the expectations outside the room. But I can tell you inside the room, we knew we had a chance to win…. [Now], I think -- no, I know -- we are at the point when we… put on the U.S. jersey we expect to win. We are not going into Sochi as an underdog.”
There is no use for it now. The underdog role they played in Vancouver inspired the U.S. players and got them to prove themselves in the ultimate best-on-best tournament. But many of the 48 players invited to the National Team orientation camp outside the nation’s capital this week have a far more emotional motivational tool in their memory banks -- the 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game.
David Backes, a rugged forward who happily embraced his role as a grinder for Team USA in 2010, jokes about suppressing his memories of the gold medal game. But after seeing some of the highlights from that game at a team meeting this week, he said some old familiar emotions began to stir within him: excitement, nervousness, disappointment and, eventually, pride and awe for the spectacle of the Olympics themselves.
“You start to put things in perspective and say, I just represented my country… in an Olympic Games, and I got a silver medal to show for it," said Backes. "How cool is that?”
But it’s not a minute before he adds, “At the same time, how cool would it have been to say, I’m a gold medalist?”
The sting of that defeat has stayed with the 16 returning Olympians at the camp this week. Though none are guaranteed spots for the trip to Sochi, most seem likely to make the team -- after which they will be all about taking care of unfinished business.
Team USA’s management, a group of current and former NHL general managers, will assess the U.S.’s player prospects once the NHL’s regular season starts on Oct. 1. Each member of the management group -- which besides Poile (the Predators GM) also includes Penguins GM Ray Shero, Kings GM Dean Lombardi and Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman (all recent Stanley Cup winners) -- will evaluate and grade the American players after every game they watch through the first three months of the season. Those grades will then be compiled and used as the foundation for selecting the team, which the group will do around January 1, 2014.
Looking at the 48 players at camp in Arlington this week, however, those decisions will be much harder than they were four years ago. “We have way more depth and way more quality than we had in 2010,” Poile said. “[But] we’re not just taking the best 25 players. We’re taking the 25 players that give us the best shot at bringing home a gold medal. “
That is an important distinction, and one that epitomized Team USA in Vancouver. Burke likened his teams to an orchestra, and made sure to balance the grace of his first violinists (skilled craftsmen such as wingers Patrick Kane and Zach Parise) with the depth and sturdiness of his tuba section (rugged grinders such as defenseman Brooks Orpik or forward Dustin Brown).
“We might not be the most skilled [players], but we’re going to try to be the best team,” Canucks center Ryan Kesler said.
In a short tournament like the Olympics, simplicity can be key. “That was one of our strengths last time was getting guys to embrace what they do best,” said Zach Parise, of the Wild. “When you can find a team that can do that, they’re usually going to do pretty well.”
In Sochi, there is no question that the skill level and the hockey knowledge on the rosters of the 12 teams will run high, but preparation time is short. Most national teams (at least those made up mostly of NHL players) will have just a couple of practices together before games begin on February 12. And what’s more, unlike in Vancouver, they will have to adjust to the wider international-sized rink.
Though the adjustment may not be as dramatic as it seems -- most players have played at least a portion of their careers on the wider ice -- it could affect the style of the games that will be playd in Sochi. With more room on the ice, speed and mobility will take precedence over physicality. The selection of the teams could very well reflect that. Puck-moving defensemen who can get out of the zone with smart, quick passes will be invaluable, as will speedy and elusive forwards. And for the first time in a long time, the U.S. can claim to have a surfeit of such players.
But where Team USA just might be the most blessed is in goal. At camp this week are six netminders -- five of whom were NHL No. 1s last season: the Senators' Craig Anderson, the Red Wings' Jimmy Howard, the Kings' Jonathan Quick, the Devils' Cory Schneider and the Sabres' Ryan Miller, Team USA’s 2010 goalie and the Olympic tournament MVP. John Gibson, 20, was the most valuable player at the World Junior Championships last year as he backstopped Team USA to gold in Ufa, Russia, and he is considered to be one of the top goalie prospects in the NHL.
Though Miller was the Olympic darling in 2010 and was a huge reason the U.S. made it to the gold medal game, he knows that the battle for the net is wide open.
“Your past does factor in a little bit, but it [will come down to] how you’re playing in the moment,” Miller said. “Every goalie here has had some experience at a high level, in a pressure situation, and they’ve played well…. I think that’s great for USA Hockey, and it’s going to give us a chance to win. Whatever role you’re in, you have to be happy with it. That’s what’s going to make us a gold-medal team.”