AP Sports Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- As teen-agers growing up in Salt Lake City, Steve and Brian Konowalchuk would often drive for an hour to an ice rink where they could practice until midnight.

Fourteen years later, Steve Konowalchuk has a chance to earn the ultimate homecoming when the 2002 Winter Olympics are played in Salt Lake.

Konowalchuk, a forward for the Washington Capitals, was among 37 NHL players who practiced Wednesday as part of a four-day orientation camp for the U.S. hockey team.

"Who would have ever thought that Salt Lake would actually have the Winter Olympics and then at a time when I could be in them and play for the team?" Konowalchuk asked. "That's pretty slim odds. For me to pull that off with all the family and friends I have out there would be exciting."

Team USA has selected 15 players to its 23-man roster, and Konowalchuk is hoping to grab one of the remaining eight spots that will be filled by Dec. 22.

That figures to be a difficult task. Coach Herb Brooks already has 10 talented forwards and is leaning toward adding only two others.

"I consider myself on the bubble," Konowalchuk said. "There's only a few forward spots left, but there's a lot of hockey between now and then."

Brooks said no additions will be made when camp breaks Friday. He and the USA Hockey staff are more concerned with building chemistry, introducing basic strategy and allowing the players to get a feel for the larger rinks used for international play.

"We're going to go to dinner a couple times. We're going to learn about each other's families. We're going to hear some speeches from guys that have won," said St. Louis Blues forward Doug Weight, who secured a roster spot in March. "Those things don't leave your mind."

Weight also addressed the importance of atoning for the team's poor performance during the 1998 Winter Games.

The United States went 1-3 in Nagano, Japan, and failed to qualify for the medal round. Hours after the Americans were eliminated, there was damage to the Olympic village suites where the U.S. players stayed.

"We have to earn some respect back this year, not only for our sixth-place finish but as people," Weight said, his gaze dropping to ground. "We're very serious and focused about our efforts right now and our task at hand."

Under an agreement with the NHL Players' Association, the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation, teams were allowed two practice days with two days of travel in preparation for Salt Lake.

The U.S. team held two 75-minute sessions Wednesday, and planned two more Thursday. All NHL teams begin training camp next week, and the Olympic players will reunite in February.

"We're all excited about it," Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano said. "Japan was a little too quick. It was rushed and no one really had a chance to enjoy the experience. Here, it will be a little more magnified. People will actually know that we're in the Olympics. People still tell me they didn't even know we played in Japan. Hopefully it can be a special time in February."

Brooks is familiar with memorable moments. He led a group of amateurs to the gold medal in 1980 and has similar expectations for his pool of professionals.

"They've influenced me to come back," said Brooks, a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I sort of grew up with these guys in the sense that I watched them come out of their junior programs and college. I'm a fan. They kind of brought me back into this competitive thing."

Konowalchuk is hoping his hockey skills lead him back to Salt Lake City, where his mother, sister and grandmother still live -- along with a couple dozen cousins.

"I'm thrilled to death, but my mom is very excited," he said. "She's always followed and backed my hockey and is proud I'm in the NHL, but there's something extra there. I think this is a bigger thrill to her than me playing in the NHL."

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B5.

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