COLORADO SPRINGS — Tony Amonte wasn’t around.
Neither was Tom Barrasso, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull or Brian Leetch.
In fact, there were plenty of former Olympians not at the World Arena on Tuesday morning for the first of three days of Olympic men’s hockey orientation camp.
There were only eight players at the camp who helped the U.S. win a silver medal at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The remaining 31 players were not on that team, and only one other, defenseman Derian Hatcher — he played in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan — has Olympic experience. That doesn’t worry veteran players. Instead, they take it as a sign that hockey in the United States is stronger than ever.
“It could have a very different look,” Dallas Stars forward Bill Guerin said of the ’06 team headed for Torino, Italy, in February. “That’s a tribute to USA Hockey and the good programs around the country and the players they’ve developed. Nobody that’s here was given opportunities; all of these opportunities are earned.”
Guerin is a veteran of the last two Olympics — the first two that included NHL players. Barring injury, he will be headed to Italy in five months. So will his Dallas teammate, Mike Modano, who is excited by the younger players fighting for a roster spot on Team USA. He feels youth programs around the country have multiplied and produced strong players.
“It’s gotten much better,” he said. “The last five, eight years, the growth of the kids and the development of those guys, just the expansion of hockey (have improved). You’re hitting markets that weren’t even thought of 10, 12 years ago. We have kids from Dallas that have gone on to college scholarships, playing in Juniors or being drafted, probably likewise in Florida, California and Phoenix where there was never a thought of a team. Now there are kids playing hockey and bringing a lot more volume of players that can have an impact on the sport.”
Former Colorado Avalanche center Chris Drury is, at 29, a grizzled veteran of Olympic hockey compared to most of the players at the camp. Drury was part of the team four years ago, but he wasn’t a major factor in Salt Lake City. Next February, he wants to be a go-to guy.
“I think I’ve had some success in the World Championships, as far as the World Cup and Olympics, I’ve made the team,” said Drury, who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres. “My role hasn’t been that big, but I hope that changes. I’d like to contribute more and reach our ultimate goal of the Olympic gold.”
If he and the rest of the U.S. players get the gold, they realize it will be without many of the old stalwarts, although things could change between now and the end of December.
“There are certainly a lot of guys that are missing from this camp that were on the last two teams,” Drury said. “If Jeremy Roenick and Brian Leetch go out and have unbelievable seasons I’m sure they’re going to be there. This is more of them getting a feel for the younger guys.”
It’s not just for young guys. Steve Konowalchuk will be 33 in November, and he is vying for a spot on the team. He dreamed of playing in his hometown during the ’02 Olympics, but shoulder surgery in October 2001 ended that.
Now his dream is to make this roster.
“It would be a huge honor for myself, when it’s all said and done, to say I was an Olympian and have a chance at a medal,” said Konowalchuk, who re-signed with the Avs this summer. “That’s any kid’s dream: to play in pro sports and the Olympics. I’ve done one but haven’t done the other.”
Konowalchuk, like the rest of the Olympic hopefuls, will have Italy on their minds through the first part of the NHL season.
“It’s definitely going to be in the back of your mind,” he said. “You want to get off to a good start. Really, it’s a three-month tryout for the Olympic team. You’re main concern is the job at hand. If things are going well you have a shot; if things aren’t going well you probably don’t have a shot.”
Avs defenseman John-Michael Liles said making the team would be an incredible feat.
“You can’t even put it into words,” he said. “Everybody dreams of playing in the Olympics and in the NHL. I’ve been fortunate enough to do one of those things, hopefully, I can make a good impression in camp and in the first few months of the season and make it to Torino.”