Brian Burke and USA's unlikely silver

2/16/2011 - NHL Olympic Sports

The first thing Brian Burke noticed as he walked into Canada Hockey Place was the quiet.

After days and days of veritable activity -- multiple games a day, teams returning from practices at other venues, players and coaches tromping through the mixed zone to meet with the media -- the atmosphere in the arena slowly dissipated to an eerie calm.

So, when the U.S. team made its way to the dressing room for its gold-medal showdown against host Canada, Burke enjoyed the unexpected quiet.

"It was like Main Street at noon when there's a gunfight scheduled," the 2010 Team USA GM told ESPN.com. "It was perfect. There was only one game that mattered that day and it was our game."

We chuckled in the days leading up to the gold-medal game at how many times Burke opined that there wouldn't be one nickel bet on the U.S. men's hockey team in Las Vegas leading up to the Olympic tournament. Did he mention it a hundred times? A thousand?

Regardless, you have to hand it to Burke for staying on topic.

From the day he was named GM for Team USA, Burke said he would not pick the best 23 American players, but the best team. When your talent pool is relatively thin, at least historically, it may have seemed like semantics. But it wasn't.

"If we'd have taken our 20 best players, Canada would have killed us," Burke said.

Burke took checkers and penalty-kill specialists; he took players with plenty of sand, like Ryan Callahan, Ryan Kesler, David Backes and Ryan Malone. He took players who didn't particularly like each other. (Backes' candid discussion about comments Kesler made about his wife during a playoff series between Vancouver and St. Louis the season before the Olympics was among our favorite moments of the Vancouver tournament.) Burke left former Olympians Mike Modano and Scott Gomez home, while he received criticism for including Chris Drury.

Whether it was the coaching from Ron Wilson and assistants John Tortorella and Scott Gordon, or the chemistry, or just the desire to prove the Americans belonged with the big boys, the U.S. made its presence felt in a stunning 5-3 round-robin victory over Canada. Ryan Miller was spectacular and the Americans went on to win their pool.
Burke's boys squeaked by Switzerland in the quarterfinals and then pounded a veteran Finnish team 6-1 to set up the rematch with Canada.

In the hours before the start of the gold-medal game, people were lining up outside bars and restaurants to watch the game. Inside Canada Hockey Place, there was less raucousness than one might have expected for a game of this magnitude, more of a quiet crackle of anticipation. Even in warm-ups, the sense of being part of a great moment was tangible.

When Canada went up 2-0 on a goal by Corey Perry, there was no sense of panic, Burke said. The Americans knew they couldn't afford to go down 3-0 and didn't. Kesler made it 2-1 just past the midpoint of the second period. With 25 seconds left in regulation and Miller on the bench for the extra skater, Zach Parise found enough space to tie the score at 2 and send it to overtime.

Burke recalled a conversation he had with Wilson before the tournament, when he noted he didn't like their chances in overtime against a team like Canada. Wilson joked that he figured his GM wouldn't mind that opportunity -- one goal for the gold, whether it favored the U.S. or not.

Seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime, Sidney Crosby ended the dream when he corralled a loose puck and caught Miller leaning to beat the tournament MVP short side to send the host nation into spasms of joy.

"It's a great play. You want to get beat by a great player on a great play," Burke said.

And that's what happened. Not that it made the taste of defeat any less bitter.

"People will laugh or think, 'What a jerk,' but the biggest problem is you lose when you get a silver medal," Burke explained. "Psychologically, it's a kick in the groin. I'm sitting on the bench fuming, just fuming. We came that close. It took almost a week to sink in what we had accomplished.

"It's a positive thing now," Burke added. "I look back on it with great pride what that team managed to accomplish."

It's been a year since that tournament began. For the Americans, those three weeks will remain something special and unifying.

"It's not a cliché at all. It was something special. People who haven't played a team sport don't know what it's like to go through an experience like that," Burke said. "So, yeah, I feel a special kinship with that team."

Who knows how things will play out over the next three years leading up to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. Our guess is the NHL will once again be part of the proceedings. If so, it's also a safe bet Burke will be involved on some level with the U.S. team as it tries to turn those silver memories into gold.

"I'm the poster boy for USA Hockey," said Burke. "I always tell the folks at USA Hockey there's no one on the planet that owes USA Hockey more than I do. If they ask me, I'll do it. I'll serve in any capacity."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.