For Americans, it all started at the top

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

When Brian Burke and Ron Wilson return to their day jobs in Toronto, the question is just how will the American duo be received?

Will the general manager and coach of the Maple Leafs get roundly applauded for leading Team USA to the silver medal after Sunday's loss to Canada? Or will they be given the cold shoulder because they ruined Canada's dream at these Vancouver Olympics in leading the underrated American squad to an improbable gold?

Either way, Burke and Wilson deserve far more credit and respect than they've received considering the red, white and blue run they have orchestrated. Talk about flying under the radar. Then again, it's not surprising considering where these Games have taken place. It's all Canada, all the time, especially when the topic is hockey.

Wilson will never be confused for Herb Brooks, but few know just how much winning gold and putting an entire rival country in a deep depression would mean to him. Don't get me wrong, Wilson doesn't hate Canada, but he takes this patriotism thing very seriously. The fact Wilson cares so much when it comes to all things international is exactly the reason why Team USA is in this position.

Yes, Team USA was very much in transition, with a player pool that no longer favored the likes of Keith Tkachuk(notes), Mike Modano(notes), Chris Chelios(notes), and on and on. Those stars, along with Tony Amonte(notes), John LeClair(notes), Mike Richter, Jeremy Roenick(notes), Doug Weight(notes), Bill Guerin(notes), Brett Hull, Phil Housley and Scott Young to name most, brought USA Hockey to a new level of competitive expectations.

While the players have aged and moved on, the head coach has not. Wilson's selection might have raised some eyebrows. The argument could be made that Wilson was so much a part of the U.S. rise to respectability and so associated with the aforementioned list of stars, that this would have been the convenient time to look elsewhere behind the bench as well.

Good thing that wasn't the ultimate decision. As much as Wilson can be cocky and rub some the wrong way with his on-the-edge humor and sarcasm, the fact is he understands the international stage and what it takes to assemble a team in short order aimed for success in the highest of profile tournaments.

Wilson has implemented a system that, too, has surprised some because he's much more of a defensive-minded coach than most realize. This U.S. team, however, is built on speed, forcing opponents to play at a pace they don’t like. This is a roster full of players who understand and accept roles. This is not an all-star team. But it is a team of stars in a much different light.

Heading into the gold-medal game, no one is talking about how weak the U.S. defense looked on paper, especially after Paul Martin(notes) of the New Jersey Devils and Mike Komisarek(notes) of the Toronto Maple Leafs couldn't play due to injury. An already thin blue line had to dig deep in a seemingly shallow talent pool.

But as Russian great Sergei Makarov used to say during his seasons in the NHL, "best defense offense yours." Those four oddly arranged yet poignant words aptly describe what the U.S. has done in the tournament. The Americans have not only scored first in each of their games, they have never trailed throughout the tourney. Ryan Miller(notes) has been credited with his outstanding goaltending, but it's a lot easier to defend when ahead.

For Burke, winning gold would certainly be – and pardon the unintended pun – a true silver lining to what has been an otherwise difficult time in his life. He lost his 21-year-old son, Brendan Burke, to a fatal auto accident less than two weeks before the start of this prestigious event. No time to grieve, Burke kept his sorrow close to the vest and maintained a professional façade all the while.

Burke and Wilson have a friendship that stems back to their college days as hockey players on the campus of Providence College, where the two were coached by current Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello. While Burke and Wilson have remained as close of friends as can be throughout the years, it's only been for the last year that the two have worked together in the role as GM-coach.

The dynamic is interesting because the two don't really agree on how the game should be played. Burke loves a gritty roster that doesn't back down from a fight, and often is the one initiating the fisticuffs, while Wilson is all for throwing the pugilist acts out of the game. He doesn't endorse fighting in the least, referring to those who back it the most as the ones who would be least willing to fight themselves.

Somehow, the two have co-existed in Toronto, Wilson having been hired by the previous GM and Burke resisting the suggestions by some that the struggling Leafs replace his close friend with a different style coach. Will winning gold or silver change the way outsiders view the Burke-Wilson working relationship?

This much is known, however. Without Burke's savvy understanding of the international landscape and Wilson's experience and know-how behind the bench, Team USA would be no where close to where it is today, and that's on the verge of bringing a hockey-loving nation right down to its knees.

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