Following the Olympic hockey hopefuls
[Editor's note: Over the coming months leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games, ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun will be following the progress and preparations for two Olympic hopefuls, Ron Hainsey and Derek Roy. This is the first installment.]
Team USA Olympic hopeful: Ron HainseySome Olympic dreams are born on wind-swept frozen ponds straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Some are more patchwork, cobbled together through different experiences, woven from different fabrics, but they are dreams all the same.
Like the dreams kept close and warm by Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Ron Hainsey.
A native of Bolton, Conn., Hainsey's father only took up the game after Hainsey became proficient. His grandparents had Hartford Whalers season tickets, but weren't exactly sporty types, either.
"None of them played. No one in my family was at any point an athlete," Hainsey told ESPN.com on the eve of this regular season. "My grandfather was like 300 pounds, owned a construction company. My father was into cars. My father started playing when I started playing. He got into it just because my mom, her parents had the tickets and everything.
"My sister, they tried to make her play basketball because she was tall, but she just wanted to talk and didn't want to play. It just wasn't her thing," he laughed. "They were never sports people, there's no other way to put it. They don't look like they were sports people."
Now it's different, of course. Both parents are avid hockey fans. They are experts in their own right, especially when it comes to matters concerning their son, the NHL defenseman and U.S. Olympic hopeful. And they have their sights set on a trip to Vancouver in February.
"They're definitely into it now," Hainsey said. "My mother has her heart set on going to Vancouver at this point. There's no doubt about that. So it'll be me either letting her down or making her happy."
The coming weeks and months leading up to the announcement of the U.S. Olympic roster -- likely Dec. 31 at the Winter Classic at Fenway Park in Boston -- will be filled with many milestones and markers and signposts.
Some will be positive, others negative, but Hainsey insists he is looking forward to the journey that began with his invitation to the U.S. orientation camp in Chicago in August.
"It's definitely something to follow throughout the year. [Team USA GM Brian Burke has] made it pretty clear, however many 'D' we take, it'll be the guys that are playing well, whose teams are playing well," Hainsey said. "Earn it through the first 30 games or whatever it is until the end of December."
The dynamics have already changed for Hainsey early on this season.
With the evolution of Zach Bogosian as an offensive force and Hainsey's changing responsibilities -- playing with Pavel Kubina as the Thrashers' top shut-down pair -- Hainsey is going to have to impress beyond straight offensive numbers.
The Thrashers are off to a solid start (2-1-0 heading into games in Buffalo and New Jersey late this week) and GM Don Waddell said he believes the team's defensive lineup is the best in franchise history.
Waddell, who is a member of the group of U.S. GMs who will help Burke scout the field, has high praise for Hainsey, whom he signed to a five-year deal last offseason.
"He's a very poised player with the puck," Waddell told ESPN.com this week. "He's got great patience to make that first pass."
Burke, too, praised the evolution of Hainsey's game even since the beginning of last season.
"We all feel Ron Hainsey's game has improved dramatically in the last 24 months," said Burke, who also selected Hainsey to compete in last spring's World Championships in Switzerland, where he played well for a young U.S. squad. "He's put himself in the hunt by virtue of that."
If there are positives for Hainsey as he tries to keep himself on the radar in the coming weeks, it's the need for the Americans to be able to include veteran character on what is expected to be the youngest team in the tournament. At 28, Hainsey could be a stabilizing presence, on the ice and in the dressing room. And if his Thrashers can continue to play well, his stock will continue to rise.
The challenge for Hainsey, as it will be for all players who are not yet Olympic locks, is to not worry too much about what others are thinking.
Still, the chance to be part of this hockey tournament remains a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No one knows if the NHL's involvement with the Olympics will extend beyond February. If it does, the chances of playing in an Olympic tournament in North America may not come around again for a generation of players.
So the dream of pulling on that U.S. jersey, and perhaps being part of something special, is undeniable.
"I've thought about it a little," Hainsey said. "I think the opportunity is there to win a gold medal and possibly be remembered like that 1980 ['Miracle on Ice'] team was forever.
"There is that opportunity to kind of accomplish something extraordinary, but it would have to be a gold medal, I think. And it would be great to do it in Canada, obviously. But that opportunity is definitely there. We've seen that with the '80 team."
For now, Hainsey is simply hoping to get his foot in the door for that kind of possibility.
-- Scott Burnside
Team Canada hopeful: Derek RoyWhen Canada ended a 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought seven years ago, Derek Roy had yet to play in a world junior hockey championship, let alone contemplate his chances of playing in the Games one day.
But wear the Maple Leaf he has indeed. The 26-year-old Ottawa, Ontario, native is a three-time silver medalist, playing in back-to-back World Championships the past two years, as well as Canada's favorite little tournament no one else seems to care about, the world juniors, in 2003.
Still, when the Buffalo Sabres star center was invited to Team Canada's Olympic camp this past summer, he was considered a mild surprise to be included among the "who's who" of the NHL elite. Even he admits he had to take a deep breath once he got to Calgary in August.
"Right off the bat, I was a little bit nervous, and you're thinking, 'Do I really belong here?'" Roy told ESPN.com this week. "But once you get out on the ice, that seems to disappear and you focus on what you have to do and you go out and have fun. You just do what you do best, and I thought I accomplished that at that camp. I worked really hard at it. So it was a good camp."
Anyone who paid attention at the Canadian camp would have noticed that Roy was among the players who stood out. He looked very much like he belonged. He collected 18 points (9-9) in 18 games at the World Championships the past two years and posted back-to-back 70-plus point NHL seasons with the Sabres.
Still, he remains a dark-horse candidate to make a forward group that is unbelievably hard to crack. Some big names won't get the call in December when Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman and his staff make their roster decisions.
"He knows how hard he's going to have to play to have that chance," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told ESPN.com. "That's really up to him."
Ruff has had a front-row seat to Roy's six-year NHL career. He was Canada's coach at the worlds this past spring in Switzerland and is an assistant coach on the 2010 Olympic team, so he was also at the Calgary camp with his star center.
"We've spent a lot of time together," Ruff said. "I thought at times last year, he lost a little focus on what type of player he was, but he had a good World Championship. He was one of the best players the last couple of games there. He really had a good camp this year and started the season pretty well for us. He's a competitor, he's creative, he can give you a little bit of both."
Roy has racked up five assists in four games as the Sabres have roared out of the gates at 3-0-1. He figures success at the club level will be his best calling card for Team Canada.
"I'm worried about the Buffalo Sabres right now," Roy said. "You keep the Olympics in the back of your mind. But at the same time, you need a good start to the season, and everyone is thinking the same thing that way. A lot has to do with your team winning and the way in which you respond and the way in which you lead your team. Going forward, that's what I'm going to be worried about."
There's absolutely no way he's checking game summaries from other NHL games to see what his Team Canada competition is up to.
"That would just drive me crazy," Roy said. "I don't pay attention to that. Obviously, you're going to hear when someone is scoring a hat trick or whatnot, but you just try to worry about what you have to do. I'm not much of a stats guy anyway. I just want to win games with my team."
-- Pierre LeBrun
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