The men's Olympic ice hockey tournament at the 2010 Games in Vancouver is expected to be one of the most competitive ever. The 12-day tournament will bring together the 12 best national teams in the world with one common goal - bring home the gold medal. The U.S. team is aiming for its first gold since 1980.
National Hockey League players will again be playing for their countries when the men's hockey competition hits the ice on February 16. They became eligible for the Winter Games in 1992, but the NHL has allowed its athletes to go to the Olympics only three previous times: in 1998, 2002, and 2006.
David Ogrean, Executive Director of USA Hockey, gives credit to the NHL for interrupting its season so that the best players in the world can compete at the 21st Winter Games. He says that will make the tournament extremely competitive.
"I think this is going to be the greatest hockey tournament in the history of the world," he said. "The reason is this - you want to talk about competitive? First time around [Nagano 1998] we had Russia and the Czechs. In Salt Lake City  it was U.S. and Canada and in Torino  it was Sweden and Finland. And we are now going to a country [Canada] that probably rightly considers itself the home of hockey," he said.
That's three different champions and no country has even managed to make the finals twice. The 12 teams at the Vancouver 2010 tournament are split into three groups: Canada, the United States, Switzerland and Norway in Group A. Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia in Group B, and Sweden, Finland, Belarus and Germany in Group C.
Where in the past, the U.S. has relied mainly on seasoned veterans, Ogrean says Team USA features a new look in 2010.
"The players are very significantly a new generation. Terribly dynamic and largely a very young group of players who are going to be competing in the Olympics - most of them for the first time," he added.
The tough decision of naming the 23-man roster was left to a seven-man committee that included USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director Jim Johansson and six general managers from NHL clubs.
They started evaluating nearly 75 players October 1. Thirty-four of the players considered came from those invited to a team orientation camp in Chicago and about 40 others from the National Team Development Program.
Team USA general manager Brian Burke says they were looking for players with the particular skills to meld into a well-balanced style of play.
"We're going to take the 23 best, with specific roles and jobs in mind. It takes a lot of different tasks to win a hockey tournament like that," he said.
Team USA Associate general manager Dave Poile says only five of the players considered for the team had Olympic experience, and only seven of them were even alive when Team USA won its last hockey gold 1980 in Lake Placid, New York.
That was the year the underdog U.S. beat gold medal favorite Russia in the semifinals of what became known as "The Miracle on Ice," before topping Finland to win the gold. Poile hopes the 30th anniversary of that win will inspire the team.
"Our message to the players is this is the time for heroic performance. Playing in the Olympics is a fulfillment of dreams," said Poile. "It's reaching a goal and it's an honor to represent our country. The Canadians took the gold away from us in Salt Lake City in 2002 and I don't think there is any better time for the U.S. to win than in February 2010 in Vancouver," he said.
Ron Wilson of the Toronto Maple Leafs is the head coach of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Team. The American roster includes 20 skaters and three goaltenders, and reflects the youth movement on Team USA.
Among the leading young players wearing the red, white and blue will be forwards Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Phil Kessel, defenseman Ryan Suter and goaltender Ryan Miller.
Kane, who turned 21 in November, is in his third season with the Chicago Blackhawks. The former Rookie of the Year was the first overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, just the sixth American to be taken first overall. He says playing in the Olympics for his country is an honor.
"It really shows you what a treat it really is and what it really means to the United States of America, and how these athletes get one goal four years around. We're fortunate enough to play in the NHL, but the Olympics are a really big thing for us and we're really going there to win the gold. So it should be exciting times," he said.
New Jersey Devils winger Zach Parise led American players in scoring in the NHL's 2008-09 season with 94 points and was named to the 2009 All-Star team. He says he expects to meet Canada in a medal match, but promises Team USA won't overlook its other opponents.
"Whether it's Norway, Switzerland, Russia, I mean, you have to approach every game with the same mentality. It's not as if you are looking at the Canada game as your first game," he said. "I mean those are [all] important games. We are going to get there the day before the games start - two days before. And it's all about building, and getting better every game and that is how the team is going to win. The team that comes together the quickest, learns their system the quickest, is going to give themselves the best advantage," he said.
The U.S. Men's Ice Hockey Team begins its Vancouver Olympics campaign against Switzerland on the opening day of the tournament - February 16.