WOODRIDGE, Ill. — After the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, it looked like Mike Modano had burned his bridges with the U.S. Olympic hockey team with some searing comments about USA Hockey after a 4-3 loss to Finland in the quarter-finals.
Modano is not only back, but general manager Brian Burke is counting on the 39-year-old Dallas Stars great to be a leader and a mentor for what should be the youngest American squad in two decades at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Burke made it clear that the team selection committee did not invite Modano to its Olympic team summer orientation camp simply as a courtesy for the all-time leader in goals and points by an American-born player.
”He’s here legitimately,” Burke said Monday as the three-day camp opened at Seven Bridges Arena in a Chicago suburb. ”There wasn’t any debate over whether we bring him or if he’s over the hill. He’s here legitimately as a hockey player.
”If you try to identify the greatest American players ever, if he’s not the first name, he’s going to be the second. He’s one of the great players we’ve ever had in the NHL. His role has changed, his ice time and power-play time have diminished, but he’s accepted that gratefully and he still performs at a very high level.”
The Americans have invited 34 players to three days of drills and team bonding exercises as a first step in preparation for the Games in February. Canada will have 10 more at its camp next week in Calgary.
The U.S. promises to be a youthful squad. Forwards Patrick Kane and Kyle Okoso, were born in 1988, the year Modano was selected first overall in the draft by the Minnesota North Stars, who later became the Dallas Stars.
Most weren’t born when the United States performed its Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union that led to gold at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
”We’re likely going to be the youngest team in the field,” added Burke.
Even with Modano. Should the Livonia, Minn., native make the team, he will have played in all four Olympics that had full participation of NHL players, from 1998 in Nagano, Japan, to a silver medal behind Canada’s gold in 2002 at Salt Lake City and a disappointing performance in 2006 in Turin.
That was the swan song for what was left of a group of Americans, including Modano, who had been part of U.S. national teams since its stunning victory over Canada at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
And it sounded like the end when Modano blasted USA Hockey for subjecting the players to too many distractions, including leaving them on their own to book flights and find tickets for family and friends, for instance. He said at the time that the organization needed ”new blood.”
Modano now says he should have kept quiet.
”You get caught up in the heat of the moment and you’re frustrated and the first people you see are the media and you don’t have time to calm down and breathe,” he said. ”Obviously, my first reaction was to lash out and say some things that I wish I wouldn’t have said a couple of days later.
”But you still feel lucky to be here and keep getting invited back.”
The other veterans in camp include defenceman Brian Rafalski, forwards Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner and goalie Ryan Miller.
It is not a team packed with offensive stars, and players like Kane, Zach Parise and Paul Stastny are likely to lead the attack.
But Burke and head coach Ron Wilson, the same tandem that runs the Toronto Maple Leafs, are counting on strong team play to make the difference.
New Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek was looking forward to becoming acquainted with his potential Olympic teammates.
Off-ice plans for the week include a trip to a Chicago White Sox game, a players’ dinner and daily contact with members of the U.S. Navy Seals who were involved in fighting in Afghanistan.
”A lot of us play against each other and to come to camp and build some camaraderie, build some trust, get to know each other off the ice, ” he said. ”That will help us tremendously in Vancouver.”