February 14, 2006

US embrace underdog role as guard changes

By Alan Crosby

TURIN (Reuters) - The United States are embracing the role
of underdog as they head into the men's Olympic ice hockey

A loss in the final at the Salt Lake City Games marked a
turning point in U.S. hockey, with several veterans leaving and
a new crop of younger, inexperienced players now taking center

That changing of the guard has few predicting a medal for
the Americans in a tournament that begins on Wednesday and
crams as many as eight games into 12 days.

"It (being an underdog) can tend to be a bit of a
motivating factor," Mike Modano, one of the veterans from a
U.S. program that flourished in the late 1990s and earlier this
decade, said before the team's first practice in Turin on


With only 11 of their 23 players having Olympic experience
-- five members, including Modano, are over 35 years old --
coach Peter Laviolette will need someone to break out at the
Games if the U.S. are to battle for a medal of any color.

New Jersey Devils forward Brian Gionta may be that player,
especially with Brett Hull having retired from the game earlier
this season.

The team badly needs a sniper to fill Hull's skates, and
with 33 goals in 58 games so far this NHL season, the Rochester
native may be as close to a replacement as the Americans have.

Another void that needs to be filled is in goal.

Mike Richter was a stalwart of the U.S. team for years but
he has retired and the Americans have yet to find a dependable

Laviolette said Tampa Bay Lightning goalie John Grahame
will start the first game against Latvia on Wednesday, a
surprise move given his lack of international experience and
status as a journeyman for much of his career before the season

"As much as we're counting on the (veteran) leadership,
we're counting on the new faces as well," Laviolette said.

"Ultimately, it won't be systems that win or lose hockey
games, it will be how hard the players play."