New era in U.S. hockey could turn to youth
Forward Mike Modano remembers what it was like for him and the rest of the Americans to tear up most of the men's hockey tournament at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, only to get shut down in the gold-medal game and watch the rival Canadians raise their flag at the medal ceremony for the first time in 50 years.
And he'd rather not re-live the moment.
"Everybody's really hungry to get back to that gold-medal game," he said.
Yet the details of who will get the chance and how well they will fare are far from a certainty, because a lot has changed for the Americans - all of hockey, really - since that historic gold-medal game at the E Center nearly four years ago.
Legendary coach Herb Brooks died in a car wreck not even a year after the '02 Games, leaving the Americans without their most venerable figure and assuring they would have a new coach for the 2006 Turin Games.
The yearlong lockout in the National Hockey League not only deprived many nations of a season to evaluate players for their Olympic teams, but it also resulted in rule changes that emphasize skating and finesse, and might help players better prepare for the international style of play at the Olympics.
And, perhaps most important, the Americans seem poised to head in a different direction under new coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Don Waddell, turning to younger, less-heralded players rather than some of the big-name veterans who played in the past two Olympics.
"When you get to the Olympic Games, the future is now," said Dave Ogren, the executive director for USA Hockey. "The margin for error is very, very thin."
Which makes the build-up all the more harrowing.
The Americans won't pick their team from a long list of several dozen prospects until Dec. 19, choosing players based on how they're performing in the NHL or other leagues.
Unlike the Canadians, the Americans have not fully disclosed who's on their list, but it might not be a huge surprise to see some of the game's biggest names - aging stars such as Keith Tkachuk, say, or Jeremy Roenick - left off the final roster, though Roenick has said he would consider it a "slap in the face" to be left off the team.
That's what USA Hockey did for the world championships earlier this year, when the Americans needed a shootout to beat Slovakia for the bronze medal while the Czech Republic beat Canada for the gold. At the time, Waddell said administrators had "decided to set a new direction."
"We want the players at the highest level," he said recently.
That's why USA Hockey is using the current NHL season as the "training camp" for its Olympic team.
Of course, it did not have a 2004-05 season to use as a guide because of the lockout, but the current set-up allows the hottest players to be tabbed for international duty. Waddell and Laviolette have been able to keep close tabs, too, because Waddell is the general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers while Laviolette is the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.
"That's probably the only way and the best way to do it," Modano said. "It's rewarding for the guys who are playing the best hockey to be on that team."
Nearly 40 prospective players attended a training camp in September, but that was the last time any of them will practice together before the opening of the Turin Games.
The team will convene only after the NHL begins its Olympic break Feb. 13, traveling to Italy for one practice before playing five qualifying games in seven days. The top four teams in each of two groups then will advance to the quarterfinals.
"It's a challenging time schedule," Laviolette said, "but exciting at the same time."
The 41-year-old Laviolette is a two-time Olympian and team captain in 1994 whose coaching style emphasizes speed and forechecking. And though his Hurricanes are leading their division, he acknowledged that it's probably tougher to coach an Olympic team because it needs to come together so quickly.
"There's pressure to be successful at whatever you do, and if you didn't have that pressure maybe your give-a-hoot meter wouldn't be so good," he said. "But there is a lot of pressure and we should expect a lot of ourselves and our team. . . . Our expectations should be high and we should be over there expecting to win a gold medal."
Even if they don't know who the "we" are just yet.
Who's in Goal
Team USA will take three goalkeepers to the Turin Olympics, hoping to find one who can fill the skates of retired two-time Olympian Mike Richter. Here's a look at the candidates:
Rick DiPietro - N.Y. Islanders
Former No. 1 draft pick led Team USA at worlds
Robert Esche - Philadelphia
Nearly led Flyers to Stanley Cup Finals in 2004
John Grahame - Tampa Bay
Not invited to training camp back in September
Ty Conklin - Edmonton
Sent to minors after disastrous start to season
Ryan Miller - Buffalo
Best in AHL last year, but out with thumb injury