SOCHI, Russia – A month ago Dustin Brown and Ryan Kesler were trading fists as rival combatants at center ice in Los Angeles. Yesterday they were shaking hands and coming together as teammates with the U.S. Olympic Men's Team.
While burying the hatchet may be easy for these Olympic teammates, coming together as a cohesive unit will be as challenging as facing the Russians on Saturday night in front of a hostile crowd at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
“We’re fine now,” Brown said after Monday’s late-night practice. “It’s one of those things, which is a part of the NHL game. We’re probably going to try to kill each other on the ice even though we know each other off the ice.”
U.S. bonds run deep, especially among those who were part of the silver-medal winning team in Vancouver. They know that their success four years ago was predicated on coming together quickly as a unit and then improving with every game of the tournament. This time around that challenge falls upon head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff.
“It’s a challenge for every team. This is a unique situation and a unique tournament,” said Bylsma, who is coaching in his first international tournament.
“You’re trying to come together as a team and build that chemistry quickly. That’s an uncommon thing for us as hockey players. But the team that comes together as a group and figures that out in the next seven days is going to be the most successful.”
One thing that will help all the teams this time around is a few extra days of practice built into the schedule. Unlike the one practice and drop the puck routine in Vancouver, the U.S. will have three full practices, even though some players felt that Monday’s session was more of a slumber party as they were trying to deal with the time change after a long charter flight.
“I like to count this as the first practice. Last night was a little bit tiring. We had just come off the plane and honestly I didn’t feel good,” goaltender Ryan Miller said after Tuesday’s up-tempo practice.
“But today felt good. The energy was there and I was seeing the puck a little better. I felt like a goaltender again.”
As the jetlag fades, those who have been here before know that the team chemistry will improve as the players spend more time together on and off the ice. One thing that helps this squad is that many players have teamed together before, whether at the National Team Development Program, at World Juniors or in a World Championship.
“A lot of us have played together in the past on different teams and we all know each other,” said defenseman Ryan Suter, has played in more international games (64) than any other player on the roster.
And while very few puck prognosticators are giving the U.S. squad much of a chance of derailing a predicted gold-medal showdown between Russia and Canada, the Americans know they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.
“We know that just because we got silver last time there are no guarantees. All these teams are so good,” said team captain Zach Parise, whose goal with 24 seconds left in Vancouver sent the gold-medal game to overtime.
“I think that we have to make sure that the second game we’re playing better than the first game. We have a tough division and we have to be sharp right away.”