Commentary

No underestimating USA this time

Updated: August 27, 2013, 3:03 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If Brian Burke said it once he said it a thousand times in the days leading up to the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver: no one gave the U.S. men's hockey team a snowball's chance in Hades of winning a medal.

American hockey was in a state of transition, the GM of the U.S. team would explain to anyone who would listen.

The Canadians, the Swedes, the Russians were all so powerful.

Of course, that American team went on to capture the imaginations of an entire nation in losing in heartbreaking fashion to Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game.

With the Sochi Games on the horizon, there is a palpable change around the U.S. Olympic hockey community as they begin preparations for the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament. And the biggest change is that no one, not Brian Burke (who remains a part of the management team), not the coaches and not the players are suggesting that this American team will be anything but a legitimate gold-medal threat as U.S. hockey enters what officials believe could be a golden age for the sport in America.

"Brian in Vancouver gave the players great cover if you will," David Poile, the GM of the 2014 team, said Monday morning at the Americans' three-day orientation camp being held at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the practice home of the Washington Capitals.

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby #87 of Canada scores the game-winning goal in overtime against Ryan Miller #39 of USA
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby's overtime goal in the gold-medal game still haunts the United States.

"What he really did, he lowered the expectations outside the room," Poile said. "But I can tell you inside the room, we knew we had a chance to win."

Sidney Crosby ruined those dreams when he beat netminder Ryan Miller from a sharp angle in overtime. That memory is a strong motivator for the 16 players from that team who were invited to the orientation camp, as well as the rest of the invitees.

David Backes of the St. Louis Blues joked about trying to suppress the memory of that goal and the emotions that came with losing the gold-medal game.

"I still haven't watched the game. I just saw some highlights of our 2010 run for the first time this camp and it stirred up some emotions," Backes admitted.

"In retrospect, a silver medal is a pretty cool honor to have won. I still hold it in my safe in my house as one of my most valuable possessions. It was a great accomplishment, but like I said before, there's some extra fuel on that fire to have that experience of being the best team in the world on that world stage. This is a great group of guys to try and accomplish that with."

So, what exactly were those emotions?

"I told you, I'm trying to suppress those, so if you keep bringing them up you might see tears and anger and rage and all in the same sentence and that's not a healthy thing," the Blues captain quipped.

"It's a mixed bag. You were so excited and nervous at the same time. When that goal goes in, you're disappointed immediately and you're discouraged."

Having beaten the Canadians in the round-robin portion of the tournament, there was a feeling of wanting another crack at them, he said.

"You almost feel like there's an injustice. Can we play a best of three, the rubber match, all these things," Backes said. "And then after that, you start to put things in perspective and say, I just represented my country on a world stage in an Olympic games and I got a silver medal to show for it. How cool is that?

"At the same time, I'm going, how cool would it have been to say I'm a gold medalist in an Olympic games representing my country. Hopefully, I get another crack at it. So thank you for the psychology session. You can bill me by the hour."

It's hard to imagine Backes won't be an integral part of a forward unit that will once again rely on speed and a vigorous forecheck to disrupt opponents like Canada and Russia, which will ice rosters that may have more raw talent.

Still, the challenge facing Poile and his management team in selecting the 25-man roster is a daunting one. They must take into account the changes that are inherent when the game is played in Europe on the bigger ice surface while not sacrificing the team's identity as a hard-working, aggressive team that served them so well in Vancouver.

Perhaps the most challenging part, though, will be in sifting through the unprecedented level of talent from goaltender on out in coming up with a roster that will give them the best chance at gold.

"I know we're at the point when we enter any tournament, when we put on the U.S. jersey we expect to win," Poile said. "I think we're a team that believes we can win. I think we're going to be one of the favorites when we get over there."

While insurance costs will prevent the players from skating, as they did four years ago when the orientation camp was held outside Chicago, they will learn about the systems head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff (Todd Richards of Columbus, Peter Laviolette of Philadelphia and Bylsma's assistant in Pittsburgh Tony Granato) will want to introduce when the team lands in Russia in February.

The team will likely have only one practice, perhaps two, before they begin the round-robin portion of the tournament.

Along with information about the Olympics -- how the athletes' village will work, accommodations for friends and family, tickets, travel -- the players will also engage in some team building during their stay in the Washington area.

To that end, former Olympians Bill Guerin and Chris Drury spoke to the group on Sunday evening about what the experience meant to them.

And what did it mean?

"Everything. That was my message to them, it meant everything," Guerin told ESPN.com on Monday.

The former forward who now works as a player development coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins is part of a generation of players considered to be the greatest in the history of American hockey. No longer. Not according to Guerin.

When he looks at the players attending this orientation camp, Guerin believes the potential is limitless.

"This will be the greatest generation of American-born players," Guerin said. "They can be. That's what I see."

In goal, the Americans boast former Vezina winner Ryan Miller, who was the tournament MVP in Vancouver in 2010, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick and top-end NHLers Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard and Cory Schneider. There are going to be talented players left off the final U.S. roster.

Along the blue line, a group of mobile, highly skilled defensemen like Keith Yandle, Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk will be making a push for inclusion on the U.S. roster. Up front there is a strong core of returning players, including Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Dustin Brown. But younger players like Alexander Galchenyuk, rookie of the year finalist Brandon Saad and Blake Wheeler will be making a case, as well.

"To kind of come from not really being on the radar in Vancouver to this point and have an opportunity to make the team, it's great. I'm just thrilled to be a part of this group and we'll see where it goes from here," said Wheeler, who led the Winnipeg Jets with 19 goals last season and was second on the team with 41 points.

Even in this short period of time, Wheeler said he's gained an understanding of how important the experience was to the veteran players.

"Just hearing some of the guys' stories from that particular Olympics and just kind of the camaraderie and the brotherhood that was formed within that team, how tight knit they were, the battles they went through to come up a goal short. You can really tell this is a group that's driven to put it over the hump this year. It's something you really want to be a part of," he said.

While the experience carried forward from Vancouver may be important in terms of dealing with the ebbs and flows of a short tournament held a long way from home, the bottom line is the U.S. team will still be a very young team. Miller is the oldest invitee to the camp at 33, while Poile noted that not one of the players was born in 1980 when the American men last won a gold medal in hockey.

"We have way more depth and way more quality than we did in 2010," Poile said. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

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