Blake makes USA hockey team

Former Moorhead High School hockey standout Jason Blake has made the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Blake represented his country at last year's World Cup of Hockey in St. Paul. When U.S. goaltender Rick DiPietro looks out from his crease at the Turin...


Former Moorhead High School hockey standout Jason Blake has made the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Blake represented his country at last year's World Cup of Hockey in St. Paul.

When U.S. goaltender Rick DiPietro looks out from his crease at the Turin Olympics, he'll see a defenseman nearly twice his age protecting him.

That is the long and short - make that the young and old - of the U.S. Olympic hockey team revealed Monday night in St. Paul.

The New York Islanders' 24-year-old goaltender was the youngest player chosen by general manager Don Waddell. Defenseman Chris Chelios will be 44 by the time the first puck drops next February in Italy.


"A defenseman that's only two years younger than me?" Waddell said with a laugh. "No, I did not imagine that when we started this whole process."

All three U.S. goaltenders are Olympic newcomers, making that key position the team's biggest question mark.

Of the remaining 20 players - 13 forwards and seven defenseman - 11 have been to the Olympics, including two four-time participants and four making their third trips. All 23 players are in the NHL.

One noticeable omission on defense is Boston's Brian Leetch, a two-time Norris Trophy winner and three-time Olympian.

"We did a rating system all year and these guys deserved to be here," Waddell said. "It wasn't that Brian was a bad player or anything than that it was just that these guys performed better and these guys were a better fit for what we were looking for."

John LeClair (Pittsburgh), Jeremy Roenick (Los Angeles) and the recently retired Brett Hull were three familiar forwards left off the squad.

Waddell met with assistant GM Paul Holmgren and the rest of his staff Sunday night to make the final, difficult decisions. Defense was the area that struck the most debate.

"We had a lot of players playing very well," Waddell said. "We said all along that we were going to base this team on not so much what was the history of players ... but how guys were actually playing."


Chelios, a Detroit defenseman, made his Olympic debut in 1984 and returned in 1998 and 2002 when NHL players were permitted to play.

"He's the ultimate competitor," Waddell said. "He's capable of being a part of this team. He plays all the hard minutes in Detroit."

USA Hockey was the first national federation to announce its roster. Team Canada will be next on Wednesday, and the remaining countries in the 12-nation tournament will make their selections known later this week - the deadline set by the International Ice Hockey Federation.

For the third time, the NHL is taking a lengthy break to allow its players to take part in the Olympics.

The American forwards are anchored by veterans Mike Modano (Dallas) and Doug Weight (St. Louis), who both played in 1998 in Nagano and four years later at Salt Lake City.

Modano leads the Stars with 30 points in 30 games, while Weight holds the Blues' lead with 23 points in their first 27 games.

The U.S. finished well out of the medal round the first time NHLers went to the Olympics and left Japan in disgrace after causing property damage. The Americans rebounded on home ice in 2002, losing the gold-medal match to Canada.

New Jersey spark plug Brian Gionta, who at 5-foot-7 has benefited greatly by the NHL's new rules that will be used in the Olympics, and fellow small speedster Jason Blake of the Islanders will be making their first Olympic appearances. Mark Parrish was the third New York player chosen.


"It's unbelievable, I don't know what to say," Blake exclaimed. "Along with winning the cup with the Islanders this is one of my dreams."

Besides the Islanders, Philadelphia and New Jersey also had three players chosen.

Erik Cole, who plays under American coach Peter Laviolette with Carolina, will join Craig Conroy (Los Angeles), New Jersey's Scott Gomez, and Philadelphia's Mike Knuble as first-time Olympic forwards.

Chris Drury (Buffalo) returns after a 2002 appearance, and Bill Guerin (Dallas) is making his third trip along with Minnesota's Brian Rolston.

St. Louis left winger Keith Tkachuk hopes to make his fourth Olympic appearance in red, white and blue - but that depends on his knuckles that currently are black and blue. Tkachuk is expected to miss four-to-six weeks after being struck in the right hand by a puck last Friday.

Tkachuk and Chelios would be the first four-time Olympians in U.S. hockey history. Once he plays, Chelios - the captain of the 2002 squad - will be the third-oldest player in Olympic history.

Gionta leads the Devils with 33 points - including 18 goals - in 32 games, while Cole has 25 points for the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes.

The defense corps is a mix of old and young, starting with Chelios and ending with 25-year-old players Jordan Leopold (Calgary) and John-Michael Liles (Colorado). They are joined by Philadelphia's Derian Hatcher and Detroit's Mathieu Schneider - 1998 returnees - and Aaron Miller (Los Angeles) and Brian Rafalski (New Jersey), holdovers from 2002.


DiPietro is likely to receive the bulk of the time in goal once the American team opens against Latvia on Feb. 15. He went 12-10-2 with a 3.18 goals-against average in his first 26 games this season. Philadelphia's Robert Esche has battled inconsistency and injury so far this season, and he is currently sidelined by a nagging groin injury.

John Grahame, who took over for Nikolai Khabibulin with Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay, is the third goaltender - edging out Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Edmonton's Ty Conklin, who both were injured much of the early season.

"We did talk about Ryan Miller quite a bit," Waddell said. "The other three guys are all starting goalies in the NHL right now."

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