Thursday, May 20, 2004
Updated: June 16, 1:46 PM ET
U.S. team picked for a purpose
By Jim Kelley
The first thing that organizers of Team USA's World Cup of Hockey entry adhered to is the reality of time -- specifically how it waits for no man.
When eight years will have passed between the time the United States first won this tournament and when it will be called upon to defend that title, one has to address that.
Gone to retirement, injury or the ruthlessness of a demanding selection committee are a goodly number of America's hockey heroes. All-world talents like Mike Richter and Tom Barrasso in goal, Gary Suter and Phil Housley on defense and Pat LaFontaine, Adam Deadmarsh and John LeClair from the forward ranks will not be wearing the red, white and blue this time out. They were a big part of America's more impressive international achievements, including the stunning World Cup triumph over Canada back in 1996 and the Olympic silver medal in 2002, but that was then.
Even some of America's youth that was prominently on display on the world stage as recently as the Salt Lake City games -- Tom Poti, Mike York, Scott Gomez and Mike Dunham -- failed to make the cut as the selection committee remained true to its pledge to build a team that would be more than just an All-Star collection of talent.
The reason is simple enough: The 2004 World Cup is in the here and now. The past, as glorious as it has sometimes been, doesn't matter. As team general manager Larry Pleau said even before the final selections were announced, the USA is in this to win and that meant picking a team that would be focused strictly on the here and now.
The World Cup, a joint venture between the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association and blessed by the International Ice Hockey Federation, gets underway August 30. It will feature teams from eight hockey-playing nations -- the U.S., Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany -- in a winner-take-all tournament that culminates in a championship game on Sept. 14 in Toronto.
Overall, the team announced Thursday by Pleau (St. Louis Blues) and assistant general manager Don Waddell (Atlanta Thrashers) is a talented and well-selected group.
It may appear a little heavy on youth in goal, but that seems more by necessity than by design.
The trio of Rick DiPietro (New York Islanders), Robert Esche (Philadelphia) and Ty Conklin (Edmonton) is young but very talented. There seemed to be a gap in regards to quality U.S. goaltending since the now-retired Richter and Barrasso started to age. The Isles' Garth Snow, Dunham and Brian Boucher (Phoenix) somewhat filled it, but few in hockey would argue that the three named to this team aren't more talented overall.
Everywhere else, the team is more blended. Both up front and on defense, it has stunning amounts of talent and experience and, on paper at least, the kind of hockey mindset that should enable it to come together quickly as a team.
With the exception of Jordan Leopold (Calgary), the blueline squad is a veteran group. Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher have resumes rooted in international competition and both have Stanley Cup rings from their time with Detroit and Dallas, respectively. Brian Leetch (Toronto by way of the New York Rangers) also has a ring, as does Brian Rafalski (New Jersey). Chelios and Hatcher give the back end a physical presence and they will be joined in that regard by Aaron Miller (Los Angeles) and Ken Klee (Toronto). Leetch, Mathieu Schneider (Detroit), Rafalski and Leopold complement the physical side with strong skating and puck-handling skills.
Though there are some noteworthy names missing from the forward ranks (LeClair and Gomez being two of the most prominent among them), it also shows a solid mix of experience, physical skills, scoring and playmaking. Noteworthy here is that a good many of the players best noted for their offensive skills -- Mike Modano and Bill Guerin (Dallas), Doug Weight (St. Louis) and Jeremy Roenick (Philadelphia) -- play a better-than-credited-for defensive game. Even the seemingly ageless Brett Hull (Detroit) can be placed in that group. Hull distinguished himself on that 1996 team for his selfless two-way play and he reprised the role in helping the 2002 U.S. Olympic team garner a silver medal at Salt Lake City.
Adding some grit and tenacious two-way play up front are Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey), Brian Rolston (Boston), Bryan Smolinski (Ottawa), Chris Drury (Buffalo), Jason Blake (New York Islanders) and Jeff Halpern (Washington). Their selections seem to validate the selection committee's desire to have a team that can perform under pressure -- a necessary component for victory given that the games will be played under NHL rules and in NHL-sized rinks. That's an important departure from the usual international format.
There's little doubt that the selection committee had that in mind when it reached out to players like Steve Konowalchuk (Colorado), Tony Amonte (Philadelphia) and Craig Conroy (Calgary). Konowalchuk and Conroy in particular may not be household names, but in hockey circles they are highly regarded players both for their ability to do the little things well and their intense competitive spirit.
Those elements -- grit, a high level of experience and overall ability -- are especially important because training camp time will be short. Pleau stated that it was his intention to bring his team to camp not to compete for spots, but to work on finding chemistry and the right fits. Having experienced players willing to check their egos at the door will undoubtedly help facilitate the process.
Some "names" from the past might be gone and some "names" of the present might be missing, but in terms of putting together a team of talent, grit, mental toughness and experience, it would appear that Team USA got it right.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.