Olympic experience makes U.S. big five solid leaders
ARLINGTON, Va. -- It can be difficult for a hockey team playing in an international tournament to develop some sort of identity because of the lack of practice time and condensed nature of the schedule.
The United States team at the 2010 Winter Olympics did coalesce well and play a consistent brand of hockey. One of the reasons was great goaltending from Ryan Miller, but another was the common ground found in the skill sets of a lot of the team's top players.
David Poile, the general manager for the U.S. team for the 2014 Winter Olympics, named his leadership group at the 2013 U.S. National Team Camp, and those players were a critical part of that group from 2010 that found some measure of an identity.
"We have a very blue-collar mentality, and that was something that made us very successful in Vancouver," Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise said. "We'll be the first ones to tell you there's going to be teams with a lot more skill than we have and we know that. We have different strengths that we can play to, and we do take a lot of pride in being well-rounded players. I think it's what will hopefully make our team successful this time around as well."
Parise and Wild teammate Ryan Suter are part of that leadership group, along with three players who are captains of their NHL teams -- Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings, David Backes of the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers' Ryan Callahan. They are all skilled players, but they're also well-rounded.
They are strong at both ends of the ice. They are apt at engaging in the physical side of the game. If someone from Sweden or the Czech Republic was asked to describe a prototypical player on the U.S. Olympic team, they are going to be among the first names to come up.
"They're top players," Poile said. "They’re guys you want on your team. They're hard to play against, especially guys like Backes, Brown and Callahan. That's no walk in the park. Parise and Suter are among the best at their positions in the National Hockey League. You add that they're good people, have good leadership characteristics, and we're glad we've identified them this early in the program."
Any Olympic team from one of the "big seven" hockey-playing nations is going to be full of players who are considered leaders on their club teams. Being a leader on an international team can be a little different, and might need an alternate approach at times.
"I was part of it in 2010, so I've been kind of through it once," Brown said. "It is a couple more meetings here and there, and kind of getting the message across. Probably on this team more than most, the messages can be conveyed probably better from a teammate than the coach because you can relate to the players. Everybody here could be a leader, so it is just about getting on the same page as quickly as possible and pushing that message."
In addition to having all gone through the process in Vancouver four years ago, all five are relatively young, as leaders in professional sports go, at either 28 or 29 years old.
Should the NHL, National Hockey League Players' Association and International Olympic Committee agree to have NHL players at the 2018 Winter Olympics, all five likely will be strong candidates to be on that team as well.
"In 2010 it was a brand new team and a transition from the former great USA players that were just too old or had retired," Poile said. "These five guys in particular have shown those leadership qualities with NHL teams, and they also did that for the Olympics in 2010. We're very pleased to have this leadership group, because it gives you that continuity that allows the coaches and myself to ask some questions and run things by them that they can support or tell us why that doesn't make any sense."
Parise said he is excited about the possibility of that type of continuity, but also offered caution because of the continuing evolution and development of American hockey.
"We had a young team in Vancouver with hardly any Olympic experience, and now we have a lot of returners," he said. "There are a lot of guys who if [the NHL] goes again [in 2018] that could potentially go again as well. The best part about it is the group of players that are coming up -- they have been winning [the IIHF World Junior Championship] or always finishing well at World Juniors and winning Under-18s [IIHF World Under-18 Championship]. We're going to be pushed. We have to stay sharp to make it next time too. That's the exciting part. I think there's much more of an expect-to-win mentality at these tournaments."
These five players will be in charge of some logistical connections between players and coaches in the coming months, but eventually the team will travel to Sochi for the Olympics and one of them will be named captain.
Considering the increased expectations after a surprising silver medal in Vancouver, there will be more pressure on the player dubbed "Captain America" by Poile, coach Dan Bylsma and the USA Hockey staff.
"Just being on a second Olympic team, those words coming out of my mouth give me chills," Backes said. "A first Olympic team, I was flabbergasted to be on it. Talking about being on a second Olympic team blows my mind, and then to talk about putting a letter on your jersey, it is so humbling and proud, but there is also responsibility that comes with that. It's not just, 'Hey here’s a letter for your jersey. Good luck out there.' There's added responsibility to try and lead the guys and keep them on the right path.
"It would be nice to hopefully be the first one with a gold medal around your neck, but like I've said before, whether you've got a letter on your jersey or you're up in the stands with pom-poms in your hands, it is all for the red, white and blue."