U.S. calls on kids

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

When the world hockey championship opens next month, Team Canada will be in transition because it has to be. Inactivity brought about by the National Hockey League lockout has caused a number of senior players to opt out.

Team USA also will be in transition, but for a different reason. It wants to be.

Even at the 2002 Olympics, the Americans were seen as an old squad in need of rejuvenation. The virtually unchanged roster in the 2004 World Cup was positively creaking. Now, general manager Don Waddell has cut the cord with the old guard and will take a much younger, lower-profile team to Austria.

Keith Tkachuk is out -- which makes sense because he's about three tons overweight. Brett Hull, who was a healthy scratch in the World Cup, is gone. Two of the USA's core defencemen for as long as anyone cares to remember, Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios, also have been dropped in favour of younger players. Up front, a similar fate befell Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick and Bill Guerin. Mike Richter, the goaltender for more than a decade, has given way to the next generation -- Rick DiPietro and Ty Conklin.

This doesn't mean that the Americans have thrown in the towel. They feel their team is talented with a young, but solid, defence and fully capable of competing at this level.

Furthermore, because most of the U.S. players are not at the uppermost level in the NHL, many of them have been playing in Europe. Therefore, they'll go to Austria in game shape, which will give them a significant advantage over some of the other teams.

The American forwards, who are fast at any time, will be doubly dangerous working against defencemen who, in some cases, haven't played competitive hockey for almost a year.

Mike York, David Legwand, Erik Cole, Jeff Halpern, Mike Knuble and Brian Gionta are all highly rated forwards.

It's also possible that Scott Gomez, who is playing in Alaska, also will join the team.

But in one area, the Americans will face the same problem as Canada.

When the crunch time comes -- as it invariably does -- and the players look around for a seasoned veteran to tell them what to do, who will fill that bill?

The elder statesmen on the U.S. team are Mike Modano and Doug Weight, and perhaps they will rise to the occasion. But Weight never has won a Stanley Cup. Modano has, but he's not known as a forceful leader.

On the Canadian side, that's the role the organizers had been hoping would be filled by Steve Yzerman.

But, while Yzerman's body was willing, his mind wasn't. He had no objection to making the kind of physical effort that would be needed to get into shape, but he fears that his best days are behind him and he doesn't want to embarrass himself.

And who can criticize that approach? Players rarely do themselves any favours by hanging on too long. If that's the way he feels, how can anyone argue?

Yet his absence still leaves a hole in Team Canada in the leadership department. While the Canadian roster is powerful, it is, like its American counterpart, in transition.

There are veterans and multiple Cup-winners -- such as Martin Brodeur and Kris Draper -- but are they the kind of players who, in times of crisis, can take over a dressing room?

Or can one of the younger players who has league-wide respect -- someone like Shane Doan or Ed Jovanovski -- step up?

At the moment, neither team has a clear-cut leading candidate in that role. But this is the time to find out -- in the 2005 world championship, a year before the 2006 Olympics.


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