Thomas savors Olympic nod

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / January 2, 2010

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Team USA isn’t sure if it will go to the medal stand in Vancouver, but it will arrive with an extreme makeover, leaving behind most of the familiar red-white-and-blue faces for a bunch of new Yanks, including Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.

“The one position where the US doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody is in net,’’ said general manager Brian Burke, shortly after Team USA named its Olympic squad upon the conclusion of yesterday’s Winter Classic at Fenway Park.

Thomas, who backed the Bruins to their 2-1 victory over the Flyers yesterday, attended orientation camp in July just outside Chicago. Goalies Ryan Miller (Sabres) and Jonathan Quick (Kings), who also attended, will accompany Thomas to the Games, which will be held Feb.16-28.

“Just this day overall,’’ mused Thomas, last season’s Vezina Trophy winner. “This will go down as one of the most memorable days of my life and career. Between winning [the Winter Classic] and the way that we won, and being named to the US Olympic team . . . I’ve been waiting 30 years for this. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this opportunity.’’

Thomas, not even 6 when the Yanks won the gold medal in 1980, watched from his family’s living room in Flint, Mich., when Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, and the rest of the ragtag Americans jumped joyously atop the medal stand in Lake Placid. It was then that he began his dream to make it to Olympus wearing the USA sweater, and he first got to pull the colors on yesterday when he joined the on-field ceremonies at Fenway.

“You know, to be able to be named at your home crowd, but at Fenway Park . . . I mean, you add those things together, this is a story that will be told for the rest of my life,’’ he said.

Gone are the days that the Americans go to Olympus with the likes of Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, and Keith Tkachuk. Time to move on, said Burke, crediting the older core of Americans for their loyalty and service.

“To steal a line from Tom Brokaw, the greatest generation we’ve had was this group,’’ said Burke. “To turn that page took a great deal of soul-searching and a great deal of agonizing. Because these are guys that not just answered the bell every time we asked them, but they played hard and they got the job done. These are highly skilled guys, patriotic and got the job done . . . so to leave that entire generation off, that alone was an agonizing decision.’’

Burke made it clear in recent months that Team USA, while a decided underdog to the Russians, Canadians, and Swedes, would have to try a different approach in 2010.

“Position by position, you had agonizing decisions,’’ he said. “Craig Anderson [Colorado’s No. 1 goalie] is a good example. Scott Gomez is a good example. Ryan Whitney is another example. David Booth . . . Kyle Okposo . . . thanks in large part to the under-18 program, we have injected a group of highly skilled players in the National Hockey League in the last dozen years and the beneficiary of that in large part has been the National Hockey League.’’

Rather than go with marquee players, of which the Canadians have a roster full, Burke felt his roster would have to be more specialized, including role players for such assignments as winning faceoffs, delivering checks, blocking shots.

“I would say David Backes is probably a good example,’’ said Burke. “You watch St. Louis play, [Backes] plays all three forward positions. He takes faceoffs. He kills penalties. He is on the second power-play unit sometimes. He had a slow start offensively compared to a year ago but he is putting the puck in the net now. He is an example of a versatile, big-bodied guy who I think can do a lot of things well. Ryan Callahan [of the Rangers], a real good penalty killer, good foot speed, top five in hits in the league as far as forwards. Those are two good examples as specialists.’’

That’s the Yanks’ plotted route to the medal stand. Other countries will bring bigger names, great profiles, better pedigrees, and greater firepower. The US will try to win on job definition and execution.

“I don’t think we have a choice,’’ said Burke. “In other words, we are picking this team and we are going head to head with Canada and head to head with Russia. We can’t take the 23 best. If they did that and we did that, we’d get our [butts] kicked. What Canada can do in this tournament is say, ‘Jarome Iginla, you’re playing third-line right wing and you have to check.’ We have to take a guy who can check better than Jarome Iginla and hope that our top six forwards get the job done, and our special teams. That’s the only way for us to beat these odds.’’

The old guard was not entirely wiped out. Ex-Boston University star Chris Drury, now 33, will be headed to Vancouver.

“Chris Drury made it because he is Chris Drury,’’ said Burke. “He’s like having another coach in the room.’’

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