U.S. defensemen ready for their roles

Updated: April 29, 2005, 8:01 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Up in Canada, they're called the "Fab Four" – Ed Jovanovski, Scott Hannan, Robyn Regehr and Wade Redden, the country's new generation of national team defensemen.

But what about the three young players who will play a pivotal role for the United States? Surely Paul Martin, Jordan Leopold and John-Michael Liles also deserve a catchy nickname.

Just don't ask them to come up with one.

Martin, who is pale and quiet during the best of times, turned ashen when asked whether he'd like to suggest such a label.

"I'm not going to give you a name before we play. What did Leo say?" Martin asked, deferring to his longtime friend and former college teammate.

"What are we going to call ourselves?" Leopold replied. "Are you serious? Ask me after the tournament."

"I don't think that you can really come up with your own nickname," Liles said. "Let me know what you come up with."

For now, then, let's call them "The Future."

Because that's what these three 24-year-olds are expected to become, starting with their biggest hockey challenge to date, anchoring the U.S. defense at this year's world championship in Austria.

"They're going to play a big role on this team. They're the future of USA Hockey," veteran defenseman Aaron Miller said. "All three of them are great players on the ice."

Instead of reaching out to perennial but aging defensemen such as Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Derian Hatcher or Mathieu Schneider, USA Hockey opted to rely on younger, less experienced players. In that regard, the trio's selection is a leap of faith from USA Hockey's perspective, but it's a calculated one nonetheless.

"You don't want to set young kids up for failure," Team USA assistant coach John Tortorella warned. "But they're all very good players. And they're going to play a major role in this tournament. We're trying to change the face of USA Hockey, and they're on the ground floor of that. They could be a part of this for a long time."

The players already have shared experiences upon which they can build a future together.

Leopold and Martin, teammates for two seasons at the University of Minnesota, became close friends while helping the Gophers to the 2002 NCAA championship. (Leopold graduated that spring, but Martin stayed and won a second title the next year.) Leopold and Liles were teammates in USA Hockey's National Team Development Program during its inaugural season, 1997-98. The three worked out together on and off during the lockout in Minnesota, and Liles was admitted to the state club by virtue of his close friendship with Colorado Avalanche teammate Dan Hinote, who is from Elk River, Minn.

The three players also rode out some early rough patches during their brief NHL careers, then went on to receive rave reviews for their on-ice skills and maturity.

"It wasn't that pretty at first. But [the New Jersey Devils] were very patient with me," Martin said of his rookie season in 2003-04, in which he scored 24 points in 70 games. Liles registered 34 points as a rookie with the Avalanche in 2003-04.

Leopold posted 14 points in 58 games with the Calgary Flames during his rookie season of 2002-03.

"Calgary, in my first year, was a rough year because we didn't have a lot of that veteran leadership," Leopold said.

Another trait they share is a lack of imposing size. Martin, at 6 foot 1, is the tallest but weighs just 170 pounds. Leopold is 6 feet and 183 pounds, while Liles is 5-10, 178 pounds. Yet all three possess exemplary puck-moving skills, great foot speed and the ability to contribute offensively by jumping into the play.

Of the three, Leopold has enjoyed the most NHL success and was an integral part of the Flames' surprising run to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals, which Calgary lost to Tortorella's Tampa Bay Lightning. Leopold played all 82 games for the Flames that season, his second in the NHL, and led team defensemen with 33 points. He also played in all 26 of the team's playoffs games, chipping in 10 assists.

"You can just see how he competes," Tortorella said.

Leopold is the only one of the three who did not play competitively during the lockout. Instead, he spent the time recovering from his second career concussion and raising his 1-year-old daughter, Jordyn Maria. He also went back to Minnesota and hopes to finish a degree in kinesiology.

"I was calling [USA Hockey] all winter asking if I was going to play," Leopold admitted.

Liles participated in IMG's world tour in December, then played in Germany for three months. Martin helped the United States to a second consecutive Deutschland Cup title before joining Fribourg of the Swiss league for 11 games.

USA Hockey's decision to start turning the national team's blue line over to the trio was made long before the planning for these world championships began.

Leopold, who won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in 2002, was a member of the United States' 2002 and 2003 world championship teams and was selected to Team USA for the 2004 World Cup. Martin and Liles were added to the U.S. World Cup roster after injuries to other players, including Leopold, who suffered a concussion during the team's first exhibition game against Canada.

"It gave me confidence just to know I could play with those top guys," Martin said. "I was just awestruck."

Now it's no longer a case of playing with the top guys but of being the top guys – players who understand the challenges and expectations that go along with wearing USA on the front of their sweaters.

"This will help us get ready hopefully for the long haul," Martin said.

"It's a way to measure yourself in terms of development," Liles added. "But at the same time, it's a great way to further your development. There's going to be a lot of eyes watching."

It's also a great way to create a nickname.

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

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