Smiles have understandably been in short supply for Brian Burke in recent days, but even he had to crack a bit of a grin when he heard his Canadian counterpart Steve Yzerman playing the Olympic underdog card.
For Burke, who tragically lost his son Brendan in a car accident on Feb. 5, it was a moment of levity in what has otherwise been a painful time for the main architect of the U.S. Team.
“Steve Yzerman is a real smart man,” Team USA’s general manager said. “He’s trying to take some of that pressure off Canada, which I might mention in passing is glacial and unremitting and unrelenting. I can’t imagine how they’re going to function in this environment but they’ll find a way, I’m sure.
“The pressure started building on Team Canada the day that Vancouver got the bid. When they announced that the Olympics were coming here that’s when the expectations began.”
Great expectations are not something the U.S. Team has to deal with. With so much attention paid to the Russians, Canadians and Swedes, the Americans are flying under the radar in Vancouver. And that’s just the way Burke and head coach Ron Wilson like it.
“I don’t know who’s taking bets on tournaments like this one, but I assume there are books somewhere. If you look, the money is going to be on Canada. There will be a lot of money bet on the Russians, too,” Burke said.
“No one is talking about our ability to win here but us, and that’s just fine with us.”
After years of relying on “the greatest generation” of players, USA Hockey has turned the page and is writing a new chapter using a new cast of American players this time around. Gone are the household names such as Chelios, Modano, Guerin and Weight. They are replaced with a new breed of U.S. players, who on average are five years younger than when their predecessors competed at the Torino Olympics in 2006.
“There was a lot of soul searching on turning the page,” Burke said. “I keep stealing Tom Brokaw’s expression, the greatest generation of U.S. players that did such a marvelous job of representing the U.S. and winning the World Cup.
“This is definitely a younger group but hopefully that brings some enthusiasm. Sometimes you don’t know any better than to go all out.”
Burke has taken some heat since the team was announced on New Year’s Day at Boston’s Fenway Park. He knows that criticism comes with the territory, but he stands behind the selections made by he and his consortium of American general managers.
“We’ve been criticized just about every place I go. Why isn’t this guy on the team? Why isn’t that guy on the team?” Burke said. “It’s a small wedding folks. There are 23 chairs at the table. That’s it. There are more talented United States players then we’ve ever had, so when people ask ‘why isn’t this guy on the team?’ it’s because we think we have better players.”
He’s ready to start silencing his detractors. The first opportunity comes Tuesday at high noon when the U.S. faces off against a Swiss team that has been together for quite some time.
After shocking the Canadians, 2-0, in Torino four years ago, the Swiss create a stiff opening challenge for the Americans. After that the U.S. faces Norway on Thursday before the big showdown on Sunday against Canada.
Not only will the U.S. be facing a superstar lineup, it will have to deal with a hostile crowd of more than 18,000 screaming fans inside Hockey Canada Place.
“We know we’re the villain up here and know that nobody is going to be cheering for us outside of American fans,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be a hostile environment and having a young team hopefully we’ll be able to function in that environment.”