Jim Souhan: Brian Burke should take a bow for his masterful USA creation

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2010 - 8:26 AM

Brian Burke

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VANCOUVER — Brian Burke's brilliance might be wasted in his current venture. Now that he has engineered the most impressive Olympic performance from a U.S. team since Mike Eruzione became a walking infomercial, let's ask Burkie to cure global warming, the recession and psoriasis.

He's one of ours, you know, a guy who grew up in Edina and who has become one of the best and bluntest general managers in the NHL. This month, as GM of Team USA, Burke might be doing his finest work, playing Chef de Cuisine to a young and unimposing roster that on Friday whipped Finland 6-1 to advance to the gold medal game.

If the USA faces Canada in Vancouver, Canadians will consider it the biggest event ever, just ahead of The Big Bang and the invention of really strong beer.

"Players have accepted their roles and busted their asses,'' Burke said in a response to a question I e-mailed him Friday night. "I have really enjoyed this group. [Coach] Ron Wilson has done a terrific job. But the mission isn't finished.''

This is a Burkie team, built with mobile defensemen, aggressive, forechecking forwards and a slew of role players who kill penalties, frustrate opposing scorers and block shots. Even Burke has to be surprised that the United States is undefeated and has outscored opponents 22-6, but the players he chose play and speak with the kind of understated confidence you would expect of Hall of Famers, not Olympic long shots.

"This is probably the best group of guys I've ever played with,'' said defenseman Jack Johnson. "This is the most unselfish team I've ever played with. Every single guy on this team I know, already, is going to lay it on the line on Sunday, and I knew that coming into the tournament.

"No matter what it is, whether it's diving head-first into shots, getting pucks out at the blue line, no matter what it is, no one cares who scores the goals, we just want to win the hocky game.''

Burke packed his roster with workmanlike players and even chose an under-the-radar coach in Ron Wilson, who is experienced but is currently overseeing what can kindly be called a rebuilding process for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Burke's new employer.

"I know I can coach,'' Wilson said. "And when you've got great goaltending and mobile defensemen and skill up front, we as coaches just try to stay out of the way.''

Finland is usually formidable in Olympic play, but the Americans' intense forechecking dominated the early going. Former Gopher Phil Kessel pressured Finn goalie Mikka Kiprosoff into a turnover that led to an empty-net goal, and the U.S. frenzy didn't subside until it was 6-0 in the first.

The Americans are undefeated. They have not trailed during the tournament. They seized the No. 1 seed in the elimination portion of the tournament with a 5-3 victory over Canada, the most talented and, it would seem, most driven team in the Olympics.

Every skater is on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger. Twelve players have scored goals, 17 have scored a point.

Even a gold medal wouldn't make this U.S. team the equivalent of the 1980 Miracle on Ice crew. Those players were college kids facing a worldwide dynasty under the cloud of the Cold War.

This is just really good hockey, better than many of us expected after watching the United States embarrass itself in Turin.

"Every one of us came here expecting to win,'' Johnson said. "We've had so much success together as a young group internationally. I've got a lot of gold medals at my house from previous tournaments. We came here thinking: Why can't we do it here?

"This is the pinnacle of sports. It's the biggest honor you could have, playing for your country for a gold medal. We're very privileged to get this opportunity at a young age, and we want to take advantage of it.

"I can't wait for Sunday.''

Jim Souhan can be heard at 10-noon Sunday on AM-1500. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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