Youth on ice for Team USA

Do you believe in miracles? Again, there isn’t much choice.

Unless things change dramatically from the start of a three-day orientation camp, set to begin Monday in suburban Chicago, until the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Games in Vancouver in February, the U.S. men’s hockey team will be facing much the same long odds as that miraculous crew did back in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y.

The reason is simple: USA Hockey has decided to turn the page, an inevitability it put off as long as it could. When Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig led a cast of collegiate all-stars first over the Russians and then Finland, it not only secured an improbable gold medal but served to inspire a new generation of American-born hockey stars.

The likes of Chris Chelios(notes), Brian Leetch, Mike Modano(notes), Jeremy Roenick(notes), Keith Tkachuk(notes), Mike Richter, Tony Amonte(notes), Bill Guerin(notes) and Brett Hull picked up the torch by the mid-1990s and established a new status for U.S. hockey – annual international contender rather than long-shot hopeful.

Now, just as coach Herb Brooks told the 1980 group that it was their time, the aforementioned veteran group now is out of time. And that means with the exception of Modano, the U.S. will have a different look for what might be the last of NHL players’ participation in the Olympic hockey tournament.

“These guys have had their day in the sun and as I said to them, we’re not closing any doors here,” said U.S. general manager Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “The older guys all understood.”

Burke reached out with a personal phone call to all of the former stars, some of whom wondered if they might get tapped again. He said each appreciated the gesture and understood why the decision has been made to go younger. It had to happen sometime.

“We’ve been so lucky to have a group that keeps answering the bell every time,” Burke said. “It’s not like other countries that have deeper pools. We’ve turned to the same group for the last 15 years and they’ve always shown up to play with heart and desire.”

Modano, the all-time leader in goals and points for an American player in the NHL, is getting a look because while still a proficient offensive forward, the 39-year-old has developed a checking side of his game that will make him a valuable commodity for the U.S. team. It seems, too, he’d be a lock for leadership designation, at least an alternate if not the captain.

“In Mike’s case, his production has fallen off, but his usefulness as a player has not,” Burke said. “It’s just his role has changed, and he has accepted that cheerfully. He’s worked very hard, he’s still a real effective hockey player even if he’s not putting up the numbers he once did.”

Modano will be among 34 invitees Monday at the Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, Ill., where the U.S. team members will work as much on getting to know one another and learning coach Ron Wilson’s system as shaking the summer rust from their skates.

Goaltending appears to be a strength, with Boston’s Vezina Trophy-winning Tim Thomas(notes) and Ryan Miller(notes) of Buffalo leading the way. Modano is joined at forward by vets Chris Drury(notes) of the Rangers, New Jersey’s Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) and Montreal’s Scott Gomez(notes).

After that, there’s a number of solid young stars that the U.S. will need to display their vast skills on the international stage, including Chicago’s Patrick Kane(notes), Colorado’s Paul Stastny(notes), Boston’s Phil Kessel(notes), Florida’s David Booth(notes), Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown(notes) and Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler(notes).

The U.S. also has its fingers crossed that young stars such as Kyle Okposo(notes) of the Islanders, St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie(notes), San Jose’s Joe Pavelski(notes), Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien(notes) and Ryan Callahan(notes) of the Rangers will shine enough to grab a roster spot.

On defense, it’s a vastly different group from years past – and this is where the Americans will be challenged. Detroit’s Brian Rafalski(notes) is the senior member of the group that includes Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik(notes), New Jersey’s Paul Martin(notes), Los Angeles’ Rob Scuderi(notes), Toronto’s Mike Komisarek(notes), Anaheim’s Ryan Whitney(notes), Edmonton’s Tom Gilbert(notes) and Atlanta’s Tim Gleason(notes), among vets. Los Angeles’ Jack Johnson(notes), St. Louis’ Erik Johnson(notes) and Nashville’s Ryan Suter(notes) hope to open some eyes.

“We went through the playoff experience with the group and the leadership situation with the guys who have been in pressure situations and we’re satisfied [with the pool],” Burke said. “The goal has to be to take the most competitive group of athletes and trust that your leadership will deliver.”

The final U.S. roster of 20-odd players won’t necessarily come exclusively from the group gathered for three days in Illinois. Burke said his staff has notified and will be tracking a total pool of approximately 80 players. Injuries can alter plans, as can players opening eyes – or falling flat – during the first three months of the 2009-2010 NHL season.

Burke said the final roster won’t be named until around the end of the calendar year.

“We’re going to be an underdog in Vancouver, there won’t be a penny bet on us in Vegas,” Burke said. “We’ll probably be the youngest team there, but we’re going there to win.”

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Aug 16, 2009