COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Look down the list of players who weren't invited to this week's U.S. Olympic Hockey Evaluation Camp here and the list is a veritable who's who of USA Hockey standouts.
Veteran defenseman Chris Chelios, the captain of the 1998 Olympic team, a veteran of the silver medal effort in the Salt Lake Games and a longtime Olympic and international participant, isn't here. Neither is longtime New York Rangers (and soon to be Boston Bruins) defenseman Brian Leetch. John LeClair and Brett Hull, two veteran forwards instrumental in America's breakthrough victory in the first World Cup of Hockey, weren't invited either.
Look down the list of players who are here, and you immediately notice that they are young -- very young.
Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators has the bloodlines -- his father Bob won gold with the 1980 team, and his uncle Gary played for 17 years in the NHL and regularly for Team USA. But Ryan is just 20 years old, and his most recent international competition was with the 2005 team in the World Juniors. Forward Dustin Brown, hoping to make the Los Angeles Kings' roster next month, was born in November 1984, and just this year graduated from the junior ranks. Ryan Kesler (8-31-84) is hoping to do the same with the Vancouver Canucks, while Zach Parise (7-28-84) hopes to find a spot with the New Jersey Devils.
The evaluation camp roster is littered with young players who have talent, but are a bit shy of experience, but to say USA Hockey is committed to a youth movement might be a mistake.
"There are a lot of kids here who have never been here before," St. Louis Blues veteran forward Doug Weight said. "It's kind of fun to see them go through the process and while we are here, it's all about helping them [understand] our experiences and the commitment you need to play [at this level], but I don't think anyone should be writing us off. We've been through this a couple of times, but we're not through yet. Guys like me, Mike [Modano], Billy [Guerin], Keith [Tkachuk]. We're not done. We learned a lot from some of the guys [not here]. They passed things on to us and it's a part of our job to do that for these kids, but we all still want to make this team and play in the Games."
That would hold true for Chelios, Leetch, LeClair and the other veterans who weren't invited. Team officials made it clear they were not being dropped from consideration. General manager Don Waddell went so far as to call several of them before the camp to thank them for past contributions and to explain why they didn't get invites this time around. He reminded them that the players playing the best hockey when the team rosters are due will be the ones invited, no matter how old or young they are.
It's just that in the interim, the evaluation team wanted to get a look at the new blood in the system and give them some exposure of what might be expected of them.
A part of the reason for that is that America's youth hockey programs, especially the national select teams that bring in players from all over the country and have them play and train as a unit, is beginning to bear a good amount of fruit.
U.S. youth and junior teams are now serious medal contenders in all of the major tournaments both in North America and around the world. Suter led the 2005 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in scoring among defensemen with eight points in seven games. Kesler had three goals in six games for Team USA in the 2004 World Juniors and was second in scoring on the U.S. team in the 2003 tourney. Parise helped the U.S. win gold and was tournament MVP in the 2004 World Juniors. The 25-year-old Jordan Leopold played a regular shift for the Calgary Flames in their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.
Among the goalies, likely No.1 Rick DiPietro turns 24 next week but already has five years of pro experience.
While there is a tendency to go with experience in international tournaments (mostly because there is so little time to put the team together) head coach Peter Laviolette took exception to the premise that some of the invitees were here just to get a taste of what could be in the future.
"We have a lot of young players here because our system is producing a lot of good players," he said. "I believe the young players here were invited because they are good players and have a real shot of making this team."
While factually correct, history shows that when there are two players of equal ability, the more experienced one usually gets the nod. Either way, Team USA appears to be a team that could contend for a medal in Italy.
"We have a lot of players and more coming seemingly every day," said Waddell, making a point that a record eight U.S.-born players were taken in the first round of the 2005 NHL draft. "We'll pick our team based on who's playing well when it comes time to submit the roster, but it could well be some of the kids we had here as well as some of the veterans. The most difficult thing we'll have to do between now and then is get enough eyes on all the players we will need to look at."
For USA Hockey, that's not just a new problem, it's a good problem and one they expect to have now and for many Olympic competitions to come.
Jim Kelley is an award-winning hockey writer based in Buffalo, N.Y., and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.