TORONTO – Brian Burke, general manager of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team bound for Vancouver, said that while his group lacks the “big-name star power” of its predecessors, it will face none of the pressure heaped on the host country.
Members of the Canadian team will be under “unbelievable” pressure as the tournament opens later this month, said Burke, who also called Canada the “clear favourite.”
“We’re underdogs,” Burke said. “There’s not going to be a penny bet on this team. We know that. We accept that. We have much more faith in our group than the public’s going to, but in this tournament, all of the money is going to be on Canada and Russia.”
The U.S. team has already lost two players, with the withdrawals this week of injured defencemen Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Burke announced Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason as replacements along the blue line.
Whitney has been averaging more than 24 minutes of ice time a game with the Anaheim Ducks and the 26-year-old from Scituate, Mass., had four goals and 20 assists through 57 games. He was likened to Martin for his puck-moving skills and overall style.
Gleason, who is from Clawson, Mich., had five goals and 10 assists through 48 games with the Carolina Hurricanes and was compared to Komisarek.
“If you’re on a job site and you break a hammer, you don’t buy a drill, you buy another hammer,” Burke said. “If we lose a specific role as we prepare for this tournament, you can expect to see some duplication of that role.”
Whitney and Gleason both have experience in international play, having represented the U.S. at the world junior tournament. Burke stressed both players were among the last removed from the original selection process.
“These are both players who were prominent in the original decision as far as picking the teams,” Burke said. “Both are character guys. Both have gladly answered the call for Team USA in the past, when asked to participate.”
Martin withdrew from the U.S. Olympic team on Monday. The 28-year-old has been sidelined since late October with a broken arm. Komisarek pulled his name from consideration on Wednesday night when he announced he would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a nagging shoulder injury.
“It’s the old Vince Lombardi story – at mid-season, everybody’s hurt, the question is, ‘are you injured?”‘ Burke said. “You get to Feb. 4, the chances are every single one of your defencemen is nursing some kind of a nagging injury.”
In both cases, a difficult decision was made even harder by the uncertainty surrounding the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics beyond Vancouver. This could have been their last chance to represent their country on the game’s grandest international stage.
Declaring their injuries and withdrawing was the honourable decision to make, Burke said, because it allowed management to send two healthy bodies to the games. He said the team has contingency plans for every position.
“They did the right thing for the program and didn’t try to bluff their way through,” Burke said. “I would guess that’s one of the worst phone calls they’ve ever had to make in their lives, both of those kids.”
Burke, who will march in the opening ceremonies, spoke at length about his feelings heading into the Winter Games.
“This whole sequence has been ‘pinch me,”‘ he said. “Like, how does this happen to one of 10 kids from a family in Minnesota, who started playing hockey when he was 13? How did I get this lucky?”
The U.S. team opens its schedule against Switzerland on Feb. 16.