First off, apologies for my extended absence. Holidays, jam-packed hockey work schedule, then a quick vacay to go skiing last week...
But I am back in the saddle again, and quite intrigued by the team that the United States will put on the ice for the 2010 Winter Olympics next month in Vancouver.
Intrigued and excited, because, in my opinion, this team invokes that underdog mentality we hockey fans "south of the border" have not had since the amateurs last represented our respective countries in the Winter Games a couple of decades ago.
That's not to say I didn't appreciate those great US squads featuring NHL stars like Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Richter, and Mike Modano, among others. Or that I didn't revel in their World Cup of Hockey title in '96 or Olympic Silver in 2002.
It's just that I am a child of that magical 1980 Gold Medal, where an upstart group of college kids shocked the world with their two-week run at Lake Placid. When professionals were finally allowed to participate in the Olympics---even if the US squad wasn't quite as good as Canada's or Russia's or Sweden's, etc.---some of that us against the world feeling was gone for me. And I have missed it, mainly because 1980 was so special to me.
But this group of NHLers representing the United States in February almost has that upstart quality. Gone are most of the old guard, save for the likes of Chris Drury and Brian Rafalski, perhaps. They have been replaced with a very young nucleus that features Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, Erik Johnson, Zach Parise, Jack Johnson, Ryan Callahan, and Phil Kessel.
This squad will be a big underdog in Vancouver, but really this is just step one for this group. They have been handed the mantle by Modano's group and will form the nucleus of future---if there are future---US Olympic ice hockey teams.
It is a fresh and exciting time for US hockey. Will they medal in 2010? Likely not. Are they capable of throwing a scare into some teams, and could they pull enough upsets to finish in the Top Three? Absolutely.
The key will be goaltending, really just as it was in 1980 and just as it usually is in any big tournament. I can't imagine that Ryan Miller (photo above) is not the number one goalie for Team USA. Tim Thomas is the veteran here, the sentimental choice, but Miller may be the hottest goalie in the game today. He gives the US their best shot at a Jim Craig-like performance.
I like the make-up of this team. I am excited to watch it take root and grow over the coming years.
For me it's time to be excited about Team USA again.