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U.S. men's hockey team is one for the ages

By Jeff Miller

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Chris Chelios recently celebrated yet another birthday, a practice that he has mastered more often than any other current NHL player.

He bemoaned receiving mostly clothes from his family to mark No. 44: "That's pretty much what you get at my age."

The old wise-guy phrase "age before beauty" has been tweaked in relation to the men's hockey team that the U.S. will send to Turin.

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A lot of age will be placed before, or at least in front of, goaltenders who have never played in the Olympics.

The American goalies were literal diaper dandies when Chelios made his Olympic debut as an amateur in 1984, yet he'll be back for his fourth go-round in Italy. Mathieu Schneider (age 36) and Derian Hatcher (33) will return to the defense after not making the 2002 team that finished second to Canada in Salt Lake City.

It's no coincidence that the goalies will be setting up behind their elders.

"They could have picked some more skilled, offensive players than myself and Hatcher," said Chelios, again the U.S. captain.

"You're looking for a certain chemistry between the defensemen and the goaltenders."

None of the three goalies has earned a mandate to start based on the current NHL season. Shortly after the roster was announced on Dec. 19, Rick DiPietro gave up six goals -- in a period and a half. Robert Esche recently returned after missing almost five weeks with a groin injury. John Grahame has pingponged from being benched to posting multiple shutouts.

Grahame played for U.S. coach Peter Laviolette on an American Hockey League championship team in 1999 and said he's confident a standout goalie will emerge.

"Whoever gels the fastest is going to be successful," he said. "With all three of us gunning to play, it should be interesting."

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They've all been outplayed recently by Ryan Miller, who was sidelined with a broken thumb when the team was picked. Miller could join the team only by replacing an injured goalie.

DiPietro and Esche have experience in the world championships, the World Cup or both. Veteran goalie Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic said experience in those events is almost as valuable as time in the Olympics.

"I don't think it's such a huge difference," said Hasek, who led the Czechs to the 1998 gold medal in Nagano, Japan. "It's good for them that they've already played on the big (international) ice, which is probably the biggest difference."

Canada is more than comfortable with Martin Brodeur, who beat the United States in the '02 final. He started slowly this season but ran off nine consecutive wins after New Year's.

"We weren't worried about Brodeur," said Wayne Gretzky, president of the Canadian team. "Marty's Marty, one of the great goaltenders of all time.

"For our country, there's so much pressure on the players and on the goaltender. The team that plays at its best and the team with the best goaltender will win the gold medal."

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