As far as Brian Burke is concerned what happens in Vegas can stay in Vegas.
He knows that the smart money heading into the Olympics will be bet on the superstar lineups of Canada and Russia. He also knows that the smart money isn’t always the best bet, especially when national pride and international bragging rights are on the line.
That’s why the general manager of the men’s U.S. Olympic Team isn’t trying to bluff when it comes to the steep odds facing his young squad.
“You go to Vegas aweek before this tournament and there won’t be a penny bet on us.
Everybody is going to be betting on and talking about Canada and Russia, and to a lesser extent Sweden,” Burke said after the team was announced on New Year’s Day.
“We’re not manufacturing an underdog status. That’s what we are. We’re going to be the youngest and smallest team in the field, and that’s fine with us. We don’t mind going in under the radar.”
With that said, Burke and head coach Ron Wilson made it clear to the 23 players chosen to represent the United States that they aren’t heading to Vancouver to be a red, white and blue speed bump for anybody.
“As I’ve said to our players…we are going there to win, and we’ve picked the team that gives us the best chance to do that,” said Burke who, along with a team of fellow NHL general managers, has spent the past 16 months scouting and analyzing every American-born player considered for this team.
What they have assembled is a young but talented team that is equal parts speed, grit and wide-eyed enthusiasm.
“I want us to be a fun team to watch, an attacking team, use our skill, use our speed,” said Wilson, who along with NHL coaches John Tortorella and Scot Gordon will lead the U.S. squad. “We’re going to be a fast team. What we lack in experience we’ll try to make up in enthusiasm.”
What is not there are many of the familiar names that have served USA Hockey so well for most of the past decade. Gone are names like Modano, Tkachuk, Guerin and Weight, replaced by rising stars such as Zach Parise, Bobby Ryan and Patrick Kane. In fact, there are only three players on the current U.S. roster — defenseman Brian Rafalski and forwards Jamie Langenbrunner and Chris Drury — with Olympic experience.
“We have turned the page generationally for USA Hockey. That was not without a great deal of agonizing thought on behalf of the committee,” Burke said.
“It’s hard to turn the page on them because of their loyalty and their patriotism. These were guys who always stepped up, so to say to those guys ‘not this time’ was tough.”
The common belief among the leadership group was that it was time for a new generation of American players to step up and write their own chapter in USA Hockey history.
Wilson, for one, is confident they will be ready to performon hockey’s biggest stage.
“These are things that you dream about. This shouldn’t be viewed as intimidating. This should be viewed as having the time of your life. That’s how we’re going to approach this,” said Wilson, who coached the U.S. Team at the 1998 Olympics in addition to the 1996 and 2004 World Cups of Hockey and the 2009 World Championships.
Up front the U.S. boasts a diverse group of speedy snipers mixed in with big bodies who can muscle their away around the smaller ice surface. (The Vancouver tournament will be the first Olympic tournament played on an NHL ice surface.)
The blue line crewis amixture of big bodies who can bang in the corners and in front of the net, and skilled puck movers who can trigger the breakout. All of them, according to Burke, can log a lot of ice time, which will be vital with only seven defensemen on the roster.
It’s in goal where the U.S. will most likely hang its medal hopes with Tim Thomas, who won the Vezina Trophy last season in Boston, and Ryan Miller, who is enjoying a career year in Buffalo.
“I think we’re going to be a very quick team and obviously very solid in goal,” Wilson said.
“We’ll have a mobile defense with a lot of upside, and the right kind of balance that we’ll need up front with a lot of high-end skill guys and then some guys who can muck it out and grind it out with the best in the league.”
The biggest challenge will be to bring the squad together very quickly before the puck drops at noon on Feb. 16 against a Swiss team that has been together for several months.
Wilson is hoping the chemistry established during a short orientation camp this summer, coupled with the familiarity that comes from playing together on previous U.S. squads, will allow them to come together quickly.
With that familiarity comes a sense of pride, not only for what it means to represent their country, but also in upholding a proud tradition started by a group that Burke has called the “greatest generation” ofAmerican players.
These new players are well aware of the monumental task ahead of them, but are up to the challenge no matter what the “smart money” says.
“We’re not expected to win by everyone else. That’s just fine with us,” said Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown. “We believe in our locker room and we believe that we’ll do great things up there.”
Spoken like a true long shot — with an ace up his sleeve.