US camp served as ice-breaker
Hockey roster won’t take shape for a few months
WOODRIDGE, Ill. - The Yanks have a game plan, along with a bunch of names on a clipboard (subject to editing over the next four months), and that healthy dollop of bravado that aids in finding a way to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk.
“Like I said the first day,’’ said Brian Burke, general manager of the US hockey squad that will play in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, “we are going there to win.’’
Team USA wrapped up its three-day orientation camp yesterday in Chicago’s western suburbs, releasing its 34 Olympus wannabes back to their summer vacations, personal trainers, and subsequent NHL training camps (Boston’s Tim Thomas and Phil Kessel will report to Causeway Street the weekend of Sept. 12-13).
As expected, nothing truly was decided here, with management and coaches making it abundantly clear from the start that it was a camp only to get to know the players, and for the players to get to know each other, everyone realizing that at least one out of three invited to camp will be deemed the weakest links when rosters are finalized at the end of December.
“I think it is important for all these players to have a good first half [of the NHL season],’’ Burke emphasized as workouts came to a close at Seven Bridges Arena. “It’s that simple. The maximum number I can come up with, the guys that I’d say are locks - solid guys that I would say have a job - is only 14. And we’re going to take 23 guys. So my message to the players is, tryouts start Oct. 1.’’
As for those 14 names, Burke wouldn’t say, but it is obvious even without a tip sheet that Team Red White and Blue is undergoing a dramatic change from the past three Olympiads. Chris Chelios, whom Burke refers to as USA Hockey’s greatest warrior of all time, was among the attendees here, but only as a special assistant. He’s among the many veteran Yankee faces who didn’t make the working “players of interest’’ list.
“A lot of these guys have had some world tournament experience,’’ said the 46-year-old Chelios, who played in the ’84 Games as an amateur, then in the ’98, ’02, and ’06 Games as a pro. “It’s not like they don’t have experience. They are 25-26 years old. It’s not like they are 22 years old and inexperienced. The last 15-18 years, it has been [Keith] Tkachuk, [Doug] Weight, [Bill] Guerin. Now this is a whole new look.’’
With Thomas, Ryan Miller, and ex-UMass standout Jonathan Quick the only three goalies brought here, for now they must be considered among Burke’s 14 locks. Rick DiPietro was considered the stud of the ’06 roster in Torino, and he would have been invited here, but his career is now threatened by injury. If he gets his game back by midseason and gets hot, he could be added to the mix, but right now that appears to be a long shot.
Kessel was here as one of 19 forwards, and even though he couldn’t work out because of his rehab from shoulder surgery, he is a decent bet to make the roster. But he is not in a group of a half-dozen locks that likely includes David Backes, David Booth, Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise, and Paul Stastny. The Yanks expect to bring 12 forwards, and the prime names for the other six jobs likely would include Chris Drury, Patrick Kane, Jamie Langenbrunner, Joe Pavelski, Bobby Ryan, and Kessel. On the bubble: Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan Callahan, Scott Gomez, Ryan Malone, Mike Modano, Kyle Okposo, and T.J. Oshie.
Along the blue line, five of the eight roster spots most likely will go to Erik Johnson (his knee healed from his freak accident prior to training camp last year), Mike Komisarek, Paul Martin, Brian Rafalski, and Ryan Suter. Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney are decent bets to land two of the remaining three spots. If so, that would leave the likes of Tom Gilbert, Tim Gleason, Ron Hainsey, Jack Johnson, and Rob Scuderi to dazzle the management staff over the course of October, November, and December to land the final job on the back line.
The final picks, emphasized coach Ron Wilson, won’t be based solely on skill. Just as Burke prefers to build an NHL roster with specific roles in mind - roles that often demand toughness - the Americans will be chosen on a scale that awards points for both skill and muscle.
“We have a general idea of how the Finns play, how Sweden plays, how the Russians play . . . the Canadian game,’’ mused Wilson. “We’ll need different styles to help wade through the minefield.’’
For instance, Burke made a point on wrapup day of saying how much he admires the likes of Backes, Kesler, and Brown for their, shall we say, overall poor manners and irritability. Specifically, he was asked who among the present candidates could pick up the five-ringed leadership torch that it appears Chelios must hand off.
“Well,’’ said Burke, normally a spontaneous quote machine, needing a few seconds to summon the names, “guys that leap out with a high compete level I would say . . . Backes is one, Kesler is one, and Dustin Brown is one. These are guys who play hard.
“[As GM in Anaheim], I got to see way too much of [LA’s] Dustin Brown the last couple of years. He is a pain. He’s a good player, a big body that hits and plays with a high level of belligerence.
“So I think we have a few guys, and we are going to need that element to be successful. We don’t have those high-end, big star players. But what we do have is a group of athletes that are skilled. We have courage and character and elements to be successful.’’
Those elements, said Burke, will have to be at near-perfect pitch if the Yanks are going to upend heavy favorites such as the Russians and Canadians (who begin their camp this weekend in Calgary, with Bruin Milan Lucic in the mix). Under his baton, maestro Burke is looking for gamers in all parts of the orchestra.
“This is not a cute cliché or anything, it is what we tell the players,’’ he said. “You go to a symphony orchestra and the first violin is elegant and there is a spotlight on her in the front row. And then there is a guy like me in the back row blowing on a tuba - and they don’t start the show until we both sit down.
“So there are a lot of important jobs. And when the [show ends], someone moves the stage. There are lots of important jobs on a team, not all glamorous. If you look at successful teams, championship teams, they’ve got blue-collar people that do a lot of blue-collar jobs with exceptional skill and dedication.’’
Masters of neither violin nor tuba, the Yanks have not stood atop the Olympic medal stand since 1980. They’ll make some music in February, be it mellifluent and golden, or kazoo-like and crushed.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.