Waddell, Team USA saddled with questions
Almost every year, the man saddled with putting together the U.S. entry in the World Championship starts out with one hand tied behind his back.
Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, recently named Team USA's GM for the World Championship this spring in Austria, has both hands free.
Too bad about that blindfold he's wearing.
Who's in? Who's out? Who's too old? Who's too out of shape? How many U.S. hockey icons do you want to tick off?
So many questions for a hockey program facing an uphill battle before it can once again be considered a world hockey power.
"I'm glad I don't have anything to do with putting this team together. That's all I can say," joked USA Hockey executive director Doug Palazzari, one of the men who turned the keys to the U.S. hockey machine over to Waddell.
The predicament facing Waddell and assistant general manager Jim Johannson, senior director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, is how to build a competitive team without embarrassing too many U.S. hockey icons.
Many players who have become synonymous with recent American hockey glory -- Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Jeremy Roenick, Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte and Mike Modano -- might not be back in the red, white and blue.
Although these players powered the U.S. to a win at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey championship in 1996 and an Olympic silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, most have not played at all this winter. Moreover, this core of American hockey luminaries turned in a less-than-inspired performance at last summer's World Cup of Hockey, and USA Hockey officials are determined to give younger players a chance.
"We don't want to offend anyone, but we hope they understand. Sometimes it's your turn and sometimes it's not," Palazzari said.
Waddell said that his World Championship team will be made up almost exclusively of NHLers but that he will take only a handful of players who haven't been playing regularly -- four or five at the most.
"I don't think you can take too many of those guys," Waddell said.
Traditionally, the World Championship are the Little Orphan Annie of international tournaments as far as the United States is concerned.
The tournament, which runs from April 30 to May 15 in Innsbruck and Vienna, usually coincides with the Stanley Cup playoffs, and many players whose teams haven't qualified for the NHL postseason have been reluctant to jump on a plane and jet across a handful of time zones to play in a tournament virtually no one in the United States cares about.
Results have reflected such indifference. Although the Americans stole a bronze medal behind Ty Conklin's stellar netminding last year in Prague, the U.S. has not won World Championship gold since 1960, when the Olympic champion was also considered the world champion. Between 1962 and 2004, the U.S. managed just three bronze medals at the tournament.
But with the NHL lockout having scuttled the entire 2004-05 season, the 2005 World Championship figure to feature the best hockey this side of the Olympics. It will also be an important barometer of where the U.S. program is heading into the 2006 Olympics in Italy.
"It's always important to have a good team at the World Championship. People in the U.S. don't have an idea of how big an event this is. This is a big tournament. This is a very important tournament," Palazzari said.
Because the United States will likely struggle offensively, it stands to reason that Tkachuk, Modano, Guerin and perhaps Weight, who has recently started playing in Germany, will be high on Waddell's list of returning veterans.
Regular national team forwards Jeff Halpern and Jamie Langenbrunner, who both played this season in Europe, will likely return in defensive roles. Former rookie of the year Scott Gomez, who played this season in his home state of Alaska in the East Coast Hockey League, will be expected to shoulder a greater offensive role.
The challenge will be for Waddell to find a blend of young stars who might add some scoring punch while being able to commit to the strong defensive game that will be imperative to tournament success.
Mike Knuble, who emerged as a legitimate offensive star with Boston before signing as a free agent with Philadelphia last summer, will be a welcome addition after playing this season in Sweden.
Among the dark horses who could find their way onto the American roster are Erik Cole, who helped the Carolina Hurricanes to a surprise berth in the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals; David Legwand, the second overall pick in the 1998 draft; and rising offensive star Ryan Malone of the Pittsburgh Penguins. All three have been playing in Europe this season.
American Hockey League players whose teams might not make the playoffs include highly touted New Jersey forward Zach Parise and promising defensemen David Hale and Keith Ballard.
Assuming perennial U.S. blue-liners Chelios and Leetch stand aside and Derian Hatcher and Mathieu Schneider don't fit into the mix for insurance or other reasons, the U.S. back end will be youthful but loaded with promise.
Chelios is an interesting element to consider.
The 43-year-old might have played in his final international competition during the World Cup of Hockey, when the Americans lost 2-1 to Finland in the semifinals. But it has long been assumed the Chicago native's long relationship with USA Hockey would continue even when his playing days were done.
In Canada, Wayne Gretzky has become a crucial part of Canada's return to the top of the world hockey order as a manager, and some envision a similar role for Chelios in the United States.
Waddell said he hasn't spoken yet to Chelios about what, if any, role he might play with the World Championship team.
Goaltending should also be a strength for the Americans, starting with Conklin, who played this season in Germany and was the backbone of last year's surprising success. The Edmonton netminder will likely battle Philadelphia goalie Robert Esche for the No. 1 spot, with former No. 1 draft pick Rick DiPietro also in contention. Mike Dunham, who had fallen off the U.S. radar with his uneven play with the Rangers last season, has played in Europe this year and could be considered if Esche and DiPietro don't look to be in game shape.
Waddell and Johannson will also name a coaching staff in the next couple weeks. John Tortorella, coach of the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, is American-born, but his lack of international experience might preclude him from assuming the head coaching role. However, he could land an assistant's job if it appealed to him.
Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette was an assistant to Ron Wilson at the World Cup of Hockey and would be considered a strong candidate for the head coaching duties.
Wilson could return, although the lack of success at the World Cup suggests USA Hockey will look for a fresh face to lead what promises to be a new-look U.S. team.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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