Brian Burke is, among other things, a realist. He knows that not one thin dime will be bet on the U.S. Olympic Team to win the gold in Vancouver.
Whether it’s overstating the obvious or looking to rally his troops, Burke is looking to create a mindset that it will be U.S. against the world when the puck drops on what may be the last time NHL players skate for their respective countries under the Olympic banner.
And when things look bleakest, when the rest of the world is against you, you only have your teammates to count on.
Looking to cultivate that mentality, Burke and head coach Ron Wilson have enlisted the services of some of the most decorated servicemen in history to address their players on the importance of an all-for-one and one-for-all attitude, especially in the face of overwhelming odds.
“I want to build a team and some camaraderie,” said Wilson, who will be coaching in his second Olympics. “You can never become a team unless you can trust the guys to the left, right, front and center. That’s what we’re trying to establish here.”
There may be no better way to drive that point home for a group of young players than to have them hear it from a real-life American military hero.
As part of the team-building efforts that are at the epicenter of the three-day camp, the U.S. brain trust brought three decorated veterans to talk about what it means to be part of a military unit and fighting not only for yourself but the person next to you in the fox hole.
Army Rangers Joe Dames and Chad Flemming, along with Navy Seal Michael Thornton each described their military experiences on the battle field in chilling detail, and how they wouldn’t be here today with the support of those in their unit.
“That room was pretty intense last night, to their stories and to hear what these guys did and what they accomplished and what they did for our country it’s just amazing,” said veteran forward Scott Gomez.
“They were trying to get the message across that you are a team, whether you have to accomplish a mission or you’re going for a gold medal. Everyone has to be on the same page. Everyone has to be focused on the goal at hand. There’s going to be stuff that’s going to happen. You have to back each other up.”
While there are similarities between the battlefield and the athletic field, to man the players all realize how fortunate they are to be playing a game they love. They also realize that they owe a huge debt of gratitude to American servicemen and women.
“[The media writes] ‘it was a heroic effort,’ or the kid beating Tiger Woods [at the PGA Championship] was ‘heroic,’ that wasn’t heroic when you get to talk to some of these Rangers and Navy Seals who have laid down their lives for us so that we have the opportunity to do this kind of stuff,” said Wilson.
With only three days together before players head their separate ways and continue their preparations for their respective NHL training camp, Wilson is trying to cram as many team-building exercises into a short time as he can.
After Tuesday’s practices, which were again held in front of capacity crowds at the Seven Bridges Arena, the Americans were slated to take in a Chicago White Sox baseball game from the comfort of a private suite.
But Mike Modano and Dustin Byfuglien were tabbed to be on the field before the game, with Modano, the veteran of the group poised to throw out the first pitch. As he walks to the mound, Modano knows he is blessed to have played the game he loves for 20 years, and to have yet another opportunity to represent his country and all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend it.
“It’s tough to compare hockey to war in Iraq, but the message they were trying to get across is that you have to support each other and making each other’s jobs a lot easier,” said Modano, who has played in 71 games for the USA.
“Being on the ice and being in the field of battle, there are similarities, but as we all know there is a huge difference. We’re here for entertainment. Those guys are in it for real.”