James van Riemsdyk has a funny little story about where he was when Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller in overtime to win the Olympic gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Van Riemsdyk was a 20-year-old rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers and living in his own apartment.
“One of my buddies came to visit me and I had to drive him to the airport,” van Riemsdyk said. “The game went to overtime and I was like, ‘Well, you know you’re taking a cab.’
“I think he ended up missing his flight.”
It was that gold medal loss to Canada that made believers out of those associated with the U.S. Olympic hockey program, raising the bar for this year’s team of 25 Olympians.
“I know we’re at the point that if we enter any tournament wearing a USA jersey we expect to win,” said Brian Burke, director of player personnel for the U.S. Olympic team. “I think that’s where our program is now.
“Whether we go in as a favorites doesn’t matter to me. All I care about, and all our players and management care about, is that we expect to win and we plan to do that.”
Since the NHL began allowing its players to participate in the Olympics in 1998, the Americans have had its share of highs and lows. The U.S. finished sixth in that first year in Nagano, with players accused of trashing their hotel rooms before leaving the Olympic village.
Four years later the Americans won the silver medal, as Mike Richter, Brian Leetch and Jeremy Roenick made it to the 2002 Olympic gold medal game, where they lost to a Canadian team led by Martin Brodeur, Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman.
The Americans finished a disappointing eighth in 2006 and were not expected to pose a serious threat to Canada, Russia and Sweden in the 2010 Games.
“I think we were projected eighth or ninth and maybe that made it easier,” said Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny, who is returning for his second Olympics. “We probably weren’t the most talented team, but we were one of the best teams there.
“All 23 or 24 guys on that team wanted the guy next to him to be happy. It was all about winning. You leave your egos at the door because every guy on the team has been a top-line guy his whole career. But when you play with the top of the top you have to sacrifice for winning.”
The 2010 U.S. Olympic team was made up of young, speedy forwards, a mobile defense and Ryan Miller between the pipes. This year’s collection of Olympians looks largely the same, with 13 returning players from 2010.
“There is talk of different expectations,” said Team USA coach Dan Bylsma, who will be making his debut in international competition. “We’re looking at a group that has largely been together and succeeded and were one goal away from winning the gold medal in Vancouver.
“Four years ago we were under the radar, certainly a younger team. Now the expectation is much different. We’re going over to Sochi, Russia with the mindset of winning a gold medal.”
And if they do, it will be hard to contain the enthusiasm of one of their most outspoken veterans, St. Louis Blues captain David Backes.
“If we win,” Backes said, breaking into a broad smile, “I’ll be on cloud nine for the rest of my time on this earth.”