Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Correspondent
Woodridge, IL- Taking to the ice for the first time since they were revealed to be under consideration for the Olympic roster, the 32 healthy players (Kyle Okposo and Phil Kessel are sitting out during the week, but are present) looked to not only entertain the very large crowd at the Seven Bridges Ice Arena, but also to show that they have the skill and mettle to make the 23 man Olympic roster, which will be announced around December 31st.
The day was dominated by the apology statement by and the circus surrounding RW Patrick Kane in the morning, but after that it was an all day celebration of hockey.
Fans packed the arena for practice, letting out huge ovations for hometown players Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, and a hearty “Detroit Sucks!” chant for Detroit D Brian Rafalski. Chants of “USA! USA!” rained down as well when the players were introduced before the start of practice.
The new nhl jerseys the players were sporting were a big hit as well. The players were divided into three groups: one with the standard white jersey, a standard blue jersey, and a throwback jersey based on the 1960 jersey that the gold-medal winning team wore.
A special feature on the blue jersey is a line from the Star Spangled Banner stitched on the sleeve, “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”. According to a USA Hockey rep, the line is stitched so that it is readable during the playing of the anthem, and it certainly looks sharp.
Once the players started, it was clear that, while the players were rusty from only being on the ice a few times during the summer, these were indeed the cream of the crop. Brian Burke described a process for selecting players that sounded more intricate than a Swiss watch, and the results were certainly evident from the word go.
The players were effortless moving around the ice, certainly a good sign of things to come for this US team. Could they be contending for a medal? Just ask C Ryan Kesler, and he’ll tell you (as he did Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog) that the US WILL win a medal in Vancouver and they WILL defeat Canada.
When asked today if, after seeing the players on the ice for the first time if he still felt as confident as he did during that interview, Kesler said “obviously everybody was a bit rusty today, but we’re confident, and we’re going in there to win.”
Kesler’s confidence appears to have rubbed off on some of his teammates. Phil Kessel, Boston RW, was downright giddy when discussing the team. “It’s pretty special….there’s a lot of great talent here. It’s unbelievable how much talent has been brought in to one camp”, he said in a lengthy post-practice interview.
That opportunity was not lost on Ryan Miller, who is going to be fighting tooth and nail with Boston goaltender Tim Thomas for the starting role for Team USA. He was asked about what it felt like to be in the running for Vancouver in 2010 after being a reserve in 2006, and he said “I want to take advantage of the opportunity. It was hard work to get to the point where my game was respectable enough to get on these kind of rosters.”
Even though the final roster will be cut to 23 guys, and 34 were invited to Woodridge, Brian Burke made sure to make adamantly clear today during his opening press conference that he will still consider players not invited to camp for inclusion on the roster. He specifically mentioned Bill Guerin, Jeremy Roenick, and Keith Tkachuk in answering questions after the press conference, and Chris Chelios was on the ice as an adviser, so he could very well still be in the mix too.
Speaking of Chelios, he was given a warm welcome when he was introduced before practice as well, even though his last NHL stop was in Detroit.
Burke also discussed the change by the IOC to an NHL sized-sheet of ice instead of the traditional international sheet used in past Olympics (it will be 13 feet narrower, as well as saving Vancouver $10 million in construction costs to retrofit GM Place), and said that it will likely be of little benefit, considering that nearly all players in the Olympics now play in the NHL.
Finally, if you were thinking about how young the members of the team are, consider this odd statistic presented by assistant GM of Team USA David Polie: only 7 players invited to the camp (Modano, Thomas, Rafalski, Scuderi, Drury, Gomez, and Langenbrunner) are old enough to have remembered the last great US Olympic moment: the Miracle on Ice.
Polie’s statement reflects the general attitude of this US team, from Kesler on up to the top of the food chain: the old guard is out, and the young guard is taking over, and victory is the only acceptable outcome. The next two days will go a long way in showing whether that is a legitimate goal, or a pipe dream.