MONTREAL – The old and the new U.S. Olympic hockey teams are represented on the St. Louis Blues, so first-time Olympians David Backes and Erik Johnson have their own grizzled veteran to turn to if they need advice heading into the Winter Games next month in Vancouver.
Keith Tkachuk played in the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, as well as the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympics and has seen it all.
“My wife and I have talked to Erik to prepare him,” Tkachuk said Wednesday as the Blues got ready to face the Montreal Canadiens. “It’s such a wonderful thing to be a part of.
“You have to take advantage of it and enjoy it with your family. It’s a fantastic experience, but the bottom line is to go win a gold medal.”
The 37-year-old Tkachuk, almost a double for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre these days with his ragged, white-flecked beard, was not named to the Americans’ 23-man Olympic roster, but neither were nearly all of his teammates from multiple Olympics, World Cups and other international events over the past two decades.
Mike Modano and Bill Guerin were also left out, while mainstays like Brian Leetch, Brett Hull, Tony Amonte and others have long-since retired.
Only Jamie Langenbrunner of the New Jersey Devils, who played at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, was retained from among the old guard as general manager Brian Burke and his staff selected a new generation of Americans. The average age of the team is only 26.5 years.
“You’re a little disappointed,” Tkachuk said. “You want to be part of it.
“It would have been five Olympics for me, but they want to go younger and that’s just the way it is. I had a great run for a while playing for the U.S. program. But that’s the direction they took and you’ve got to respect that. They’ll do a really good job. They’ve got a lot of good players.”
Good, but the view of most observers is that after Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and perhaps Phil Kessel, they are not a match for the firepower and depth of the favourites – Canada, Russia and defending Olympic champion Sweden.
Instead, they went for grit and determination up front with selections like Backes, Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan and Ryan Kesler.
With Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender Ryan Miller, who has been challenging Canada’s Martin Brodeur’s claim to best in the world status this season, they’ve got a strong shot at some kind of medal.
And who knows? If they get hot they could even be back in the Olympic final for the first time since Tkachuk and his group lost to Canada at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
“Everyone knows we’re underdogs,” said Johnson, the defenceman from Bloomington, Minn., who was picked first overall in the 2006 NHL draft. “We have a goal going in to win a gold medal and we have the team to do it, but obviously nobody’s going to bet any money on us.
“We have to keep our nose to the grindstone. Most of the time, it’s about riding a hot goalie and getting some lucky breaks. In a short tournament like that, we definitely have the goalie and hopefully we can help him out.”
Backes, a physical six-foot-three centre from Blaine, Minn., relishes the underdog role.
“It’s a lot less pressure and you can play a lot freer and let yourself get into the game – not squeezing the sticks,” he said. “If Canada or Russia isn’t in the final, it’s a huge disappointment.
“Not that we wouldn’t be disappointed internally, but a lot of external people have picked us to not do that well. We like that.”
The 25-year-old said it will take hard work to overcome the skill advantage Canada or Russia will bring to the ice.
“We can’t play run and gun and trade chances with them, that’s for sure,” said Backes. “They’ve got so much talent and ability and firepower if we do that it will be a long night with an ugly score for us.
“We’ve got to play a hard-nosed game where we’re controlling the puck and putting pressure on their defence and making them play our style of game. If we do that, we’ll at least give ourselves a chance to get something done.”
The American program is on a roll this year, with its win at the world junior championship in Saskatoon only two weeks ago, where they upset Canada in the final. But Backes doesn’t see that as any portent of what may happen in Vancouver.
“It’s inspiring but it’s a whole different tournament and a different bunch of guys,” he said. “But we’ve seen what can happen when you’re underdogs and you put in a lot of effort as a team. You can get a lot done.”
Backes said he and Johnson talk about the Olympics from time to time, mostly logistical matters about flights and arrival times of themselves and family members.
As they games draw nearer, they will likely approach Tkachuk and perhaps two others with Olympic experience on the Blues, Canadians Paul Kariya and Eric Brewer, to share more insights on it all.
For now, the Blues are more concerned with rallying after a weak first half of the NHL season.
Coach Andy Murray was fired and Davis Payne brought in on Jan. 2, and after a slow start, they put together a four-game winning streak before stumbling to a 4-2 loss in Columbus on Monday night. The players are excited that Payne favours a more offensive game to try to get the team scoring again.
Backes had 31 goals in 2008-09, but scored only 10 times through the team’s first 48 games this season.
“We’re pretty busy trying to win games with the Blues now, but as the Olympics get closer, we’ll try to have dinner with him once or twice and see what he has to say about the (Olympic) experience,” Backes said of Tkachuk.
“We try to visualize what’s going to happen, but it’s a whole new experience. As much preparation as you put in, you won’t know until it happens. You soak it in when it comes and when it’s time to play hockey, you go for 60 minutes and see who wins.”