Golden Dreams

Braintrust Makes Tough Decisions In Assembling U.S. Olympic Team

Let the second-guessing commence.

The ice shavings from the youth hockey players who stopped in front of the NBC cameras to reveal the names of the 2014 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team had barely settled on the ice at Michigan Stadium, the site of the NHL Winter Classic, when critics began their best Monday morning quarterbacking – even though it’s Wednesday – by questioning those who were left off the 25-man roster. 

Moments later, U.S. General Manager David Poile sat alone at a podium to address more questions about who was not named than who was for the squad that will represent the United States at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

“With all due respects to past teams, this is the first time that we’ve had to make those types of [difficult] decisions,” Poile said. “The quantity and the quality of USA Hockey players is growing at a fantastic rate.”

Notably, several defensemen who have long and distinguished international careers were left off the U.S. roster. Erik and Jack Johnson bleed red, white and blue dating back to their days at the National Team Development Program. But Poile and the USA Hockey management group felt that their talents were not as suited for the big ice surface as several other younger, fleet-footed defensemen like John Carlson and Cam Fowler. 

And then there was Bobby Ryan, a member of the 2010 U.S. silver-medal winning squad who has also potted 18 goals with the Ottawa Senators so far this season. Poile was very candid in saying that he wanted to take five centers on this squad, leaving Ryan as the odd man out.

Just like Brian Burke in 2010, Poile and his charges said they were not looking for the best players, but the best mix of goal scorers, defensive specialists, shutdown defensemen and penalty killers that give the U.S. the best chance to succeed in Sochi. And just like Burke in 2010, Poile will spend most of the next month defending the decisions made by the management group.

“This is not about picking an all-star team,” Poile defended. “We did not pick the best 25 players. We picked the best 25 players that we thought give us a chance to compete to win a gold medal.” 

They also looked at chemistry, such as the defensive pairing of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik in Pittsburgh, or the fact that T.J. Oshie and David Backes play on a line, as do Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk in Toronto and Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan with the N.Y. Rangers.

Much of the decision was based on stemming the tide of not winning on foreign soil after having success in North America.

“A lot of our thinking in terms of putting the squad together was done along that line,” said Poile. “As we head to Sochi I really feel that we have a chance to win, and we expect to win. For the first time other countries are regarding the U.S. as one of the favorites to win the Olympics.”

Still, Poile praised the work of USA Hockey’s grass-roots structure and particularly the American Development Model for creating a system of development that puts the U.S. on equal footing with other countries.

“This is the first time that we’re facing the same decisions that Canada has where we have to leave off some top, top players,” he said.

Three players that were selected participated in the Winter Classic and have ties to the Ann Arbor area, and particularly the NTDP. Kessel and van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings were quick-change artists and slipped out of their NHL jerseys and put on the USA Hockey blue for the team introductions.

“This is really surreal, these last 24 hours with the Winter Classic and now to be named to Team USA,” said Howard, who admittedly has not enjoyed his finest season this year, but Poile pointed to his consecutive 35 win seasons and his success in the playoffs, particularly against the Nashville Predators. 

And like Howard, who parlayed his experience at the NTDP into a successful college and pro career, the others said that the seed that was planted in Ann Arbor has fueled their desire to once again wear the USA crest at the highest level.

“Since I came to Ann Arbor this is something that I’ve always wanted to do, play at the Olympics, and it’s something that I’m very excited for,” said vanRiemsdyk, who scored the Maple Leafs first goal earlier in the day.

And as the ice shavings continue to settle and critics nitpick the selections of the defending silver medalists, Poile as well as the players will return to work with their respective NHL clubs, but they will count down the days until they board the Olympic charter and head for Sochi.

“I really look forward to the next month but I wish we could get on the plane right now and go over there,” he said.

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