Brian Burke is, among other things, a realist. He knows that not one thin dime will be bet on the U.S. Olympic Team to win the gold in Vancouver.
Whether it’s overstating the obvious or simply looking to rally his troops, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic Team is looking to create a mindset that it will be the U.S. against the world when the puck drops on what may be the last time NHL players skate for their respective countries under the Olympic banner.
And when things look bleakest, when the rest of the world is against you, you only have your teammates to count on.
Looking to cultivate that mentality, Burke and head coach Ron Wilson enlisted the help of some of the most decorated servicemen in history to address their players on the importance of an all-for-one and one-for-all attitude, especially in the face of overwhelming odds.
“I want to build a team and some camaraderie,” said Wilson, who will be coaching in his second Olympics.
“You can never become a team unless you can trust the guys to the left, right, front and center. That’s what we’re trying to establish here.”
There may be no better way to drive that point home for a group of young players than to have them hear it from a real-life American military hero.
As part of the team-building efforts at the epicenter of the three-day camp, the U.S. brain trust brought three decorated veterans to talk about what it means to be part of a military unit and fighting not only for yourself but the person next to you in the foxhole.
Army Rangers Joe Dames and Chad Flemming, along with Navy Seal Michael Thornton, described their military experiences on the battlefield in chilling detail, and how they wouldn’t be here today without the support of those in their unit.
“To listen to their stories and to hear what these guys accomplished and what they did for our country was just amazing,” said veteran forward Scott Gomez.
“They were trying to get the message across that you are a team, whether you have to accomplish a mission or you’re going for a gold medal. Everyone has to be on the same page. Everyone has to be focused on the goal at hand. There’s going to be stuff that’s going to happen. You have to back each other up.”
With only three days together before players went their separate ways to NHL training camps, Wilson crammed as many team-building exercises into a short time as he could.
Systems were discussed, paperwork was filed and players were able to shake off the rust. But most importantly, friendships were made and players who are enemies during the 82-game season became friends.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of guys from across the U.S. and across the league,” said Mike Komisarek, who will play for Wilson in Toronto after six years with the Montreal Canadiens. “We worked hard when we were on the ice but also had some fun off it. All in all, it’s been an awesome experience.”
“We covered a lot of things that we needed to cover,” added Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas.
“Early in the summer I was asking myself why are we getting together now, and now I understand.”
As was stressed throughout the week, this was not a tryout camp. Players were selected based on a number of factors, including how well they played last season. The U.S. leadership scouted American players last season and filed extensive reports that were compiled to create a list of prospective players.
Burke was quick to point out that just because a player was not invited to the camp, he still has a good chance to make the U.S. Team if he has a strong start to the 2009-10 season.
“The selection process is far from over,” Burke said. “We expect to name the team around Dec. 30, so a player who comes out of the gate and has a great start is still very much alive. This is not necessarily the group that will represent us in Vancouver, but if we’ve done our job we should be pretty close.”
Now that the camp is over, the real tryouts will begin once the puck is dropped on the NHL season. Burke and crew will fan out over the league to watch as many American-born players as they can to see who’s playing well enough for one of the coveted 23 roster spots.
“Once the season starts I have to try to help the Kings win hockey games and hope that everything takes care of itself,” said Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson.
“Obviously it will be in the back of my head because this is something that I’d give anything to play in, but I have to do my job in L.A., first and foremost.”
As players and coaches tend to the matters at hand, Wilson hopes some of what was discussed in
Chicago will take hold somewhere in the back of the brain. To reinforce things, he plans to wait until after the team is named to send out a DVD with various systems and concepts of how he wants the team to play once they hit the ice in Vancouver.
“We want to be an aggressive forechecking team that’s on the attack all the time. We don’t want to give up possession of the puck, and when we don’t have it we want to get it back as quickly as possible,” said Wilson.
“Three practices in August are not going to win the Olympic Games. This was about a mindset, a philosophy of how we’re going to play the Games. I want them to hear that in the back of their heads throughout the year.”