When it comes to picking the U.S. Olympic Team, Brian Burke knows there will be broken hearts and bruised egos scattered along the way.
Still, the man known for his no-nonsense approach has tried to mend fences with those left off the guest list of 34 players invited to attend the Olympic Orientation camp in Chicago this August.
“As with any invitation only event, you have 250 people at a wedding, the 251st person is sour because they weren’t included,” the general manager of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team said during a conference call to announce the camp roster on Monday.
“The mission and the choices will be questioned, and that’s fine. The job gets tougher for us every year thanks to USA Hockey producing a deeper and deeper talent pool.”
This year’s roster includes a mixture of fresh blood and seasoned veterans competing for the 23 final spots. Included in the mix are young guns Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan and Phil Kessel, along with past Olympians Mike Modano, Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner.
Missing from the list are several veterans who have served USA Hockey well for more than 15 years. Players like Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick are all still playing in the NHL and doing very well, particularly Guerin who was a member of Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Burke reached out to most of the “old warriors” personally, explaining the process and assuring them that they would still have ample time to earn a spot on the final roster.
“The older guys were all understanding,” said Burke. “They said they’d all like to be there, but they appreciated the call and they get it. As I said to them we’re not closing any doors here.”
Still, this promises to be one of the youngest teams competing in Vancouver, and will likely be considered a long shot for a medal. That underdog role is one that Burke relishes.
“There’s not going to be a penny bet on us in Las Vegas, we know that,” said Burke.
With no time to prepare before the puck drops on their first game on Feb. 16, the U.S. coaching staff, led by Ron Wilson, John Tortorella and Scott Gordon will use the three days in Chicago to put a few rudimentary systems in place and get players familiar with each other, on and off the ice.
“This is an orientation camp, not a tryout camp,” Burke stressed. “Whatever time we do spend on the ice will be spent working on systems and working on team building. There won’t be any scrimmaging; there won’t be any tests or timed trials or any of that stuff.
“And we’re going to spend our off-ice time focusing on our American heritage as hockey players.”
Over the last 10 months, Burke and the other members of the U.S. management team, which includes NHL general managers David Poile, Ray Shero, Don Waddell, Paul Holmgren, Dean Lombardi along with USA Hockey’s Jim Johannson, began a thorough evaluation process of every American playing in the NHL, and even some playing in the AHL.
Over the course of the season, however, Burke felt that a fair picture was developed for each player. From that list, the 34 invitees to the camp were named, including 19 forwards, 12 defensemen and three goaltenders.
“Our first thought was to go with 30 players but some guys kept crowding us and playing well enough that we had to expand it,” said Burke.
Among some of the more interesting selections was Erik Johnson, who missed his entire second season in the NHL with a knee injury caused by a freak accident with a golf cart. Still, the former No. 1 overall pick has shown Burke and others enough in the past to warrant a spot in the camp.
“Selecting Erik Johnson is based on what we know about the player and the player we believe he’s going to be,” said Burke. “I don’t believe a player should be penalized or excluded just because he’s injured.”
Another somewhat surprising selection was Modano, who at 39 seems to have tailed off a bit on the stat sheet. As Burke pointed out, the all-time leading American scorer may not light the lamp with the same frequency as in year’s past, but he has been given a more defensive-oriented role with the Dallas Stars.
“If you look at the evolution of the Dallas hockey club, Mike Modano has been asked to take on an increasingly defensive role,” Burke said. “His production has fallen off but his usefulness as a player has not.
“It’s just that his role as a player has changed. He’s accepted that role cheerfully. He’s still an effective hockey player even though he’s not putting up the numbers that he once did.”
Burke warned those on the conference call, and hockey fans around the country, against thinking this was the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. These 34 players will represent only a fraction of the overall talent pool being considered for the 23 roster spots. In addition, approximately 50 other players will participate in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency pool, a prerequisite for all potential Olympic athletes.
“If we’re right on our identification the team will come out of this camp,” said Burke.
“My suspicion is that knowing how competitive our athletes are that’s not going to be the case. Some of these guys are going to try to jam it right down my throat, and I welcome that.”
For the roster of players selected to attend the U.S. Olympic Team Orientation Camp in Chicago, Aug. 17-19, go to USAHockey.com.