ARLINGTON, Va. -- Four years ago, Brian Burke went into overdrive to tamp down expectations about a skilled but young American team that arrived in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic tournament.
Burke, who picked that team and knew just how good it was, did his customarily excellent sales job, and the United States snuck up on a few established powers on its march to the gold-medal game. Unfortunately for Burke and his charges, the story ended poorly; a heartbreaking overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game.
The defending silver medalists officially began the road to Sochi as 48 hopefuls gathered at the Kettler Ice Center for the two-day U.S. Men's National Team Camp, the first step in a long journey to the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The list of players will be whittled down to the 25 who will be chosen to take the ice in Sochi and determine their country's fate in the most important international hockey tournament of them all. That team will not fly under anybody's radar.
"I don't think we'll sneak up on anybody this time," said Burke, who is serving as director of player personnel this time around. "That's a good thing. It means we have gotten better as a country, it means we have better players and there will be different expectations for this team."
Bill Guerin, one of the most decorated American players of all time and part of the core that lead the USA to an upset of the Canadians at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey that changed the international hockey world order, believes this collection of players has the potential to be the best USA Hockey has ever put together.
Asked to speak to the players at the start of camp, Guerin stated that very fact to the players on hand, leaving many shocked at the ramifications.
"It is what I believe," Guerin told NHL.com Monday afternoon. "You sit in that room and you see the faces and you know the names and you see where these guys are coming from -- the depth and talent at every position. They absolutely can do that and we want them to do that. We want them to be the best. We want them to win."
But can the Americans win? Can they overcome Canada? Are they better than Russia, the host this time around? What about Sweden, a perennial power at the Olympics?
Guerin looks back at 2010 and sees a gold-medal game that was a 50-50 affair throughout more than 60 minutes before Sidney Crosby, the world's best player, ended the drama with one of the most iconic goals in the history of the sport. He sees the core of the team now four years older and four years wiser. He sees youngsters coming through the pipeline who are even more skilled. And he sees unlimited potential -- gold-medal potential.
"You saw it start to develop last Olympics," Guerin said. "You have the Ryan Callahans, the David Backes, the Brooks Orpiks, the Ryan Suters, the Zach Parises -- those guys are going to be around for a long time. They are the core, they are the new guys. Honestly, I couldn't be more proud and happy to see the quality humans and great hockey players they are."
For the players asked to take on the burden of being the new greatest generation of American hockey, Guerin's passing of the torch from the 1996 World Cup championship team was a humble and sobering moment in hockey lives full of accomplishments and accolades.
"When he said it, I think a lot of guys really took that to heart because for us, myself in particular, those were the guys you wanted to be like and represent the country," Parise said. "I think USA Hockey has come a long way."
But being told they can be something great is a far step from actually being great, a distinction that was not lost on many of the American players.
"I think [Guerin] means it when he says it, but he's also telling you that you have the potential or the opportunity to do that and that doesn't really mean anything if you don't do anything with that potential or opportunity," Orpik told NHL.com. "I think it is a motivational thing and kind of a reminder to guys. If you end up doing something with that potential, that opportunity, that is a pretty good generation to replace.
Others can't even wrap their head around a situation in which they would be compared to the collection of players who came out of nowhere 17 years ago and decided that the United States could play with any country, regardless of its resources or skill level. For many in the current USA setup, those players are the reason they embraced hockey and chased the dream of wearing their country's crest in international competition.
"My generation grew up watching the [Keith] Tkachuks, the Guerins, the [Mike] Modanos, the [Brian] Leetches -- those were our idols," Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown told NHL.com. "For one of those guys to sit there and say that, it's pretty humbling.
"We don't compare ourselves to them. Always, in our eyes, they'll be that group. I look at that group -- I remember watching the '96 World Cup, and they will always be that group no matter what happens."
David Backes says the key for this generation is that there are immediate reinforcements on the way as young players join the fold and bolster the 16-man group of returnees from the Vancouver experience. If this group of Americans reach the mountaintop in Sochi and outdo what Guerin and his mates did during their prime years, Backes believes that will be the difference.
"The key is that it is a core, it's not 25 guys that are going to stay together until we can't skate anymore and then we start over from scratch," Backes told NHL.com. "We have a core of guys that are back and will hopefully be on this team because we gained a lot of experience at the last Olympics and we can use those lessons to cultivate a few guys that don't have them. We have that fire in us to win a gold medal."
Guerin's words only stoked that fire further.
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