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Team USA cultivating 'two-way loyalty'

4/29/2005

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull, John LeClair, Derian Hatcher. Their names flow as though they were one entity. And for the past 10 years, whenever the best hockey players in the world gathered, they were the face of Team USA.

Until now.

With the exception of holdovers Modano and Weight, the United States will unveil a younger, largely anonymous team when it hits the ice against Slovakia on May 1 in its 2005 World Championship opener.

"No doubt about it, this is an opportunity for a changing of the guard," said general manager Don Waddell, who epitomizes the evolution of U.S. hockey at the elite level.

The Atlanta Thrashers' vice president and general manager served as assistant GM at last summer's World Cup of Hockey after assembling a surprising bronze-medal winner at last year's World Championship. His latest entry, which again will be coached by 40-year-old Peter Laviolette, will send a message, one way or another, about the immediate future of U.S. hockey at the highest level.

"We've got to find out whether this next group of guys is going to step forward for us," he said. "And there's no better chance to find out than now."

The 1996 World Cup of Hockey, which the United States won by defeating a Canadian team led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, was a coming-out party for that soon-to-be-familiar cast of players. In historical terms, it sits alongside the 1980 Miracle On Ice as a benchmark for the nation's hockey development.

The next nine years, that same team would reunite with varying degrees of success.

At the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, the first in which NHL players competed, the U.S. squad finished out of the medals and players further embarrassed themselves by trashing dorm rooms in the athletes' village.

Four years later, the Americans were the best team at the Salt Lake City Olympics until midway through the gold-medal game. Although the U.S. squad eventually succumbed to a powerful Team Canada, the silver-medal effort under legendary Herb Brooks would, in retrospect, be the group's swan song.

Last summer, again with Ron Wilson behind the bench, Team USA returned 11 players from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey (it would have been more had Hatcher not withdrawn at the last minute and Roenick not been injured). The team struggled offensively and was beaten by Finland on home ice in the tournament semifinal. By the end of the tournament, Hull had been benched and USA Hockey was already making plans to turn the page.

With the NHL lockout scuttling the entire 2004-05 season, this year's World Championship tournament provides a rare opportunity to test whether a new blueprint that stresses youth and loyalty can return the U.S. national program to the top. Only seven players selected to the team are over 30.

Although the United States doesn't enjoy the same depth of talent as Canada, it appears USA Hockey is trying to follow Hockey Canada's pattern of development. That strategy rewards players who participate in tournaments such as the World Championships, normally a difficult sell because it's staged in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with chances to play in higher-profile events such as the Olympics and the World Cup.

"We're trying to create the atmosphere of two-way loyalty, really," said assistant general manager Jim Johannson, who is also the senior director of hockey operations for USA Hockey.

That's why defenseman Andy Roach, who has toiled in obscurity in the German elite league the past six seasons, finds himself – along with seven other members of last year's bronze-medal team – wearing red, white and blue again when more established NHL players are sitting home.

The implication is simple: Reject these invitations at your peril. If the NHL returns to the Olympics in eight months (or if the lockout extends that long), look for USA Hockey to reward players on this World Championship team with Olympic berths, especially if this team has the success management believes it's capable of achieving.

"We're not going to beg for players. We want players who want to be with us," Waddell said. "There is a plan in place."

Turning over a roster -- actually, an entire program -- often includes relying heavily on veteran players filling certain roles. Modano, Weight and defenseman Aaron Miller will be asked to provide the leadership that is so crucial in such a short tournament, while older players like Mike Knuble, 32, and Mike York, 27, will be expected to bring their NHL scoring touch with them across the Atlantic.

But if this team is to have success, it will be because of its youth, not in spite of it. John-Michael Liles, Jordan Leopold and Paul Martin, all 24, will anchor the blue line. Up front, youngsters like Erik Cole, David Legwand and Brian Gionta will be expected to produce just as much as the veterans.

There have always been young players on international teams, "but they've always been put in the safety role as we call it," Waddell said. "Now we need them to step up and show us that they can be part of that next wave of American players."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.