U.S. men’s hockey — a roster of stars that became a team
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter February 20, 2014 10:31PM
USA forward Zach Parise (9) celebrates his goal against the Czech Republic with teammates Phil Kessel (81) and USA defenseman Ryan Suter during the second period of men's quarterfinal hockey game in Shayba Arena at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
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Updated: February 21, 2014 11:06AM
SOCHI, Russia — What amazes Zach Parise most about his American teammates at the Olympics isn’t how they’re scoring at will in a tournament marked by defensive dogfights. It’s not how Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have dominated on the bigger ice. In fact, it’s not anything that happens on the ice.
It’s what happens on the bench — guys leaping in the air after goals, roaring when a teammate sacrifices himself to block a shot, congratulating and encouraging players as they come back to the bench.
In a tournament full of all-star teams, the United States has built an actual team — one on which players have not only embraced smaller roles than they’re used to, but are reveling in them.
“It’s guys that are used to playing 18, 19, 20 minutes a night and playing power plays and penalty kill back home, then they come over here and play a lesser role,” said Parise, the American captain. “The guys that are doing that, they’re really embracing what they’re doing and taking a lot of pride in what they’re doing.”
That’s what Nashville Predators and Team USA general manager David Poile had in mind when he put the team together. He repeatedly said it wasn’t about picking the 25 best players, but the 25 right players — players who could fit coach Dan Bylsma’s system, who could fill a need and still produce in limited minutes.
There’s T.J. Oshie, the shootout specialist. Ask Russia how that worked out. There’s David Backes, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan, stars on their NHL teams, checking-liners on Team USA. Ask the Czech Republic how that worked out. There are penalty-killers such as Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Kesler, leaping in front of slap shots, risking life and limb. Ask Alex Ovechkin how that worked out.
It’s why Oshie and Blake Wheeler are here in Sochi, while Bobby Ryan and Kyle Okposo are back home. Bylsma and Poile didn’t want all scorers. They wanted third- and fourth-liners, and penalty-killers and role players, too.
“We just have a really good group,” Patrick Kane said. “We’ve got a lot of different dimensions to our team, whether it’s skill, that physical presence, good defense, good goaltending. … They did a good job of putting it together.”
Team Canada — whom the U.S. will play in Friday night’s hotly anticipated semifinal — has a roster loaded with unbelievable talent. But coach Mike Babcock has struggled to find the right mix, switching lines nearly every day (aside from losing John Tavares to a knee injury, he’s sticking with the same lines Friday that he did Wednesday, the first time he’s done so). Meanwhile, the more consistent and pre-planned U.S. lineup, despite being less gaudy on paper, has been the highest-scoring team in the tournament, while Canada has just seven goals in three of its four games.
It helps that so many of these players have known each other a while — 13 were on the 2010 silver-medalist team, while many others played in World Juniors and World Championships together. There’s an easy chemistry, and a willingness to sublimate individual success for the sake of the team.
“It’s the makeup of our team,” Brown said. “It suits my game. And it suits a lot of our guys, too.”
Back when the 48 prospective members of Team USA met for an orientation camp in August, Bylsma tried to create that culture in a short time. He wanted the Americans to be fast, yes. Physical, yes. “Hard to play against,” and in-your-face, too. But he also wanted them to be selfless, to not be offended or concerned with playing time totals.
He wanted a team. He appears to have gotten one.
“He used the example of Ryan Callahan, myself, Chris Drury and Bobby Ryan in Vancouver,” said Backes, one of the breakout stars of the tournament. “We were a fourth line with four guys on it that were rotating, seeing 7-10 minutes a night, and having to produce some energy to help out the other guys, and do whatever we needed to do in this 7-10 minutes to help the team win.”