A proud night for the red, white, and blue turned into disappointment for the Black and Gold.
Hal Gill, Brian Leetch, and David Tanabe, three Bruins back liners in the mix for USA Olympic duty, all were left off the invite list last night when the Yanks finalized their roster for the Turin Olympics.
In somewhat of a surprise, Team USA opted to name only seven defensemen, one fewer than most predicted, and chose to carry a 13th forward. In perhaps an even bigger surprise, one of the seven spots on defense was awarded to the NHL's oldest player, Chris Chelios, who will turn 44 in January, less than a month before the puck drops in Turin.
Chelios, still a key contributor for the Red Wings, will be the third-oldest hockey player to compete in the Games. According to USA Hockey, only Germany's Alfred Steinka and Hungary's Bela Ordody were older. They played in the 1928 Games at St. Moritz.
''If you were left off this team," said Team USA general manager Don Waddell, who also runs the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, ''it doesn't mean you are a bad hockey player. It means we have other good hockey players."
Leetch, 37, was hoping to be named to the US squad for a fourth Olympics. He was there in '88 when the Yanks, still basking in their 1980 gold medal triumph at Lake Placid, were embarrassingly rubbed out at Calgary, under the direction of former high school hockey coach Dave Peterson. Leetch was there again 10 years later in Nagano, the first time NHLers were invited to Olympus. And he was there at Salt Lake City in '02 when the Yanks lost to Canada in the gold medal game.
Leetch wanted to be there once more, perhaps for his final international dance.
''My hand's up, for sure," he said the other day, asked if he hoped to sport the Stars and Stripes. ''I'm hoping that I'm playing well enough that it makes it an easy decision for them."
Ultimately, though, he couldn't catch the eye of the likes of Waddell, assistant GM Paul Holmgren, and coach Peter Laviolette. There is still a chance Leetch will be asked to be part of a three-man taxi squad that will go to the Games, but his only chance of playing would be if someone gets injured.
''He's answered the bell whenever we've called," said Waddell, sounding as if he regretted not being able to ask Leetch along for the ride to the Rings. ''He had a good start to the year until he got hurt [knee injury at Long Island Nov. 1].
''We talked about Brian a lot. He's a true professional. It came down to a decision that had to be made, and the end result was we had to put together a team that we felt had the best chance to win a gold medal."
Gill and Tanabe both attended a three-day training camp in Colorado Springs in early September, while Leetch was not part of that tuneup. Gill was believed to be among the leading candidates for a spot on the club, but he has been among the many Bruins to struggle in 2005-06. Tanabe, until his recent trade here from Phoenix, had become a spare part with the Coyotes.
The Bruins also could go 0-for-Canada now that Joe Thornton has been traded to San Jose, although Patrice Bergeron has a shot at making Team Canada. Sergei Samsonov (Russia) and P.J. Axelsson (Sweden) are the two Bruins with the best chance of going to Italy.
Four former Bruins will suit up for the Yanks, including first-time Olympian John Grahame, the goalie who has become the No. 1 starter this season for the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Grahame was named along with Winthrop's Rick DiPietro and Flyers backstop Robert Esche, who just a couple of weeks ago was dissing Grahame -- making it clear he didn't feel he was an NHL-caliber goalie -- while the ex-Bruin was in the midst of a nine-game winning streak.
Forwards Mike Knuble (Flyers), Bill Guerin (Stars), and Brian Rolston (Minnesota) are the other ex-Bruins who will suit up for the Americans.
Guerin and Rolston, along with Mike Modano, wore their USA sweaters to center ice last night in St. Paul as part of the formal announcement. The ceremony was broadcast on OLN.
The Yankee roster has had nearly a 50-percent turnover in four years. In all, 11 players, including all three goalies, will be headed to Olympus for the first time. According to Waddell, the radical turnover is due in part to the increasing number of US-born players in the NHL (121 this season).
Nonetheless, the Yanks will have a sizable old guard, including the likes of Aaron Miller, Mathieu Schneider, and Chelios on defense, as well as Modano, Guerin, Doug Weight, and Keith Tkachuk up front. Tkachuk recently broke knuckles during a game for the Blues, but Waddell said he feels sure Tkachuk will be back in appoximately a month, roughly three weeks before the puck is dropped Feb. 15 in Italy when the Yanks open against Latvia.
The Canadians, who will name their squad Thursday, will enter the tournament as heavy favorites to repeat as champs. The Czechs, winners of the gold medal in '98, also will have a formidable squad, perhaps strong enough to dump the Canadians. The US is generally considered to be on a second tier of contenders, along with the likes of Russia and Sweden.
''I love Canada, it's a great country," said Weight, recalling the melancholy that came over him in '02, when he and his fellow Yanks watched from across the ice while the Canadians celebrated their gold medal. ''But I don't plan on that happening again. I don't want it.
''We had two unbelievable, high-flying games against the Russians, and then come the third period [vs. Canada], our team ran out of gas. Canada picked it up, and they deserved it, but it killed us to see it happen."