ARLINGTON, Va. - For two days, 48 invitees to USA Hockey's Olympic orientation camp watched game video, held team meetings and dinners, heard tales from U.S. Navy SEALS and attended a Washington Nationals game. In Calgary, Team Canada's mix of All-Stars and hopefuls played ball hockey on covered ice.
"I think that means we're still marginally ahead," joked Dan Bylsma, the Penguins coach who will lead the U.S. squad in Sochi, Russia, next February.
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Whatever edge, if any, that the Americans -- who won the silver medal in 2010 -- have at this oh-so-early juncture, will be evened in due course.
On paper, Canada, which won the gold in 2010, is potent and deep. The host Russians should be dangerous offensively, and the Swedes are expected to be strong, especially on the larger, more familiar international ice.
And not only has the U.S. team fared poorly overseas -- in Nagano in 1998, they lost in the quarterfinals to the Czech Republic and again were eliminated in the quarters in Torino in 2006, this time by Finland.
This time, the U.S. management is planning to retool with more speed, but the final 25-man roster, to be announced Jan. 1, will have just one practice together before playing Slovakia in the preliminary round of Feb. 13 and another before facing Russia on Feb. 15.
Neither the U.S. or Canadian teams, who will be composed of NHL players, have taken the ice because of the high cost of insuring players' salaries before the NHL season begins. So the first three months of the season will essentially be open tryouts for candidates fighting for spots.
After camp drew to a close with the unveiling of blue team jerseys Tuesday, U.S. general manager David Poile, who holds the same position with the Nashville Predators, estimated that at least half the spots were locked up, mostly with returnees from 2010, but that the final roster likely would be infused with younger talent.
"We haven't won any medals in Europe. We have to make some adjustments: the coach, the systems and the type of players we take over," Poile said. "We told the group that their body of work was really important but what they do in October, November, December, will be the deciding factor. It's not going to be easy. We told the players that this is going to be the toughest team you've ever, ever made. We've never had the depth and quality we presently have."
On top of everything, Team USA, whose candidates include Rangers Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan and Islander Kyle Okposo, won't be considered an underdog.
Zach Parise, a former Devils winger who now skates with the Wild, said, "We're not going to surprise anyone anymore."