Often referred to as a second-tier hockey nation and constantly in the shadows of the superpower nations like Canada and Russia, but just good enough to finish in the middle of the pack, the US is often criticized for its hockey strength and popularity. Canadians are often bitter towards the amount of teams the US possesses and the NHL ďfavoritismĒ with the surplus of attention it gets despite the quality of players it produces with a significantly larger population. Americans get high on the US-Canada rivalry but to some Canadians itís not really a rivalry but a big brother-little brother relationship, much unlike the Canada-Russia rivalry.
In fact since the 1980 Miracle on Ice, here is how the US has finished in Menís Hockey at the Olympics:
Year Olympic Location Finish
1984 Sarajevo 7th place
1988 Calgary 7th place
1992 Albertville 4th place
1998 Nagano 8th place
2002 Salt Lake City 2nd place (Silver Medal)
2006 Turin 8th place
Now while the professionals have just started playing in the Games in the most recent Olympics, the fact is that the United States has had problems obtaining any form of success outside of the Salt Lake City run, in which they were to no surprise, sandwiched by the Gold Medal winner Canada and Bronze winner Russia. The US has taken many bumps in their hockey history, but the turnaround may be on the way. Letís take a look at some of the accomplishments USA Hockey has made this year:
- Gold Medal in the U-20 World Junior Championships, defeating Canada in the Gold Medal game and Sweden in the semi-finals.
- Gold Medal in the U-18 World Championships, defeating Russia in the Gold Medal game and Canada in the semi-finals.
- Gold Medal at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, beating Team Ontario in the Gold Medal game and Sweden in the semi-finals.
- 2nd place at the U-18 Six Nations tournament.
- Beating Canada in the round-robin portion of the Olympics, despite Canada being ranked 2nd by the IIHF, while the United States was ranked 5th.
- Defeating Finland easily 6-1 in the Olympic semi-finals, which included a 6 goal first period, in route to their first gold medal game since 2002.
- The Womenís program has fared well too, winning the last 2 World Championships, 3 of the last 4 and ranked first coming into the Olympics.
The Olympics have been a big stage for the Americans to show their progress, with a serious chance to medal in two of the last three Olympics. Now obviously the accomplishments of the kids are whatís very impressive and whatís even more interesting is the diversity of birthplaces from the pros to the amateurs. While the NHL is often criticized for its expansion movement into the States, people fail to understand how much of a long-term project the expansion truly is; it takes generations to establish a sport in a community firmly and grow it from thereon out. Here is a breakdown by State birthplace of the Olympic team:
USA Olympic Team
3 New York
1 New Jersey
This is about whatís expected with the big hockey states around the north, northeast and a couple of oddities sprinkled in. Now hereís the breakdown for the U-20 World Juniors using the preliminary 30 invitees and their hometowns via USA Hockey:
USA U-20 World Juniors Team
3 New York
2 New Jersey
Now while some of the invitees of the ďnon-hockey statesĒ didnít make the final roster, this still shows how the US is developing in terms of expansion. The States on that list wouldíve appeared so obscure for producing high-quality hockey players not even 10 years ago, never mind further back. It really shows the slow yet steady pace at which hockey in the US has been developing. Texas and California have really become more established hockey states with the success of the Ducks/Sharks and the Stars, and more hockey players are coming out of warm climate States than ever before. While there arenít any staggering numbers for one State, itíll be a very long process before it gets to that point, States will continue to grow in producing high quality hockey players. Hockey in warm-climate areas is certainly not a poor manís sports due to the expenses required to play such as excessive travel to rinks, spending thousands of dollars annually for ice time, the travel, living requirements and equipment. While those conditions do somewhat apply to Michigan or Minnesota, itís not as severe.
Another big reason for the United States success has been the work of the United State National Team Development, otherwise referred to as the USNTDP. The USNTDP is currently an assembly of some of the best, young American players in the world and is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Most of the US top prospects of their respective age-groups end up playing on the USNTDP which resides in the USHL, but they're also likely to play in some college and international games on top of that. With all of that top talent in one place with the focus of the team being on developing these players to the best of their abilities, itís no wonder that there is an absurd amount of talent drafted out of the USNTDP.
The USNTDP has churned out many top prospects for the NHL Draft such as 1st overall picks Erik Johnson and Patrick Kane, as well as other big names like James van Riemsdyk, Rick DiPietro, Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek, Ryan Whitney, Jack Johnson, Ryan Kesler and many, many more. The 2009 Draft saw 7 players from the program go in the top 60 and that number will likely continue to grow this year.
Players from the 2010 Draft class in the USNTDP include big names such as Jon Merrill, Jack Campbell, Derek Forbort, Justin Faulk, Jason Zucker, Stephen Johns, Luke Moffat, and Jarred Tinordi. Thatís not even mentioning non-UNSTDP Americans such as elite 2010 Prospect Cam Fowler along with other prospects like Emerson Etem out of California and high-school prospect Nick Bjugstad. Most of these players have a good to reasonable chance of going in the first round and most definitely will go in the top 60.
The 2011 class also brings some high-quality Americans to the forefront, with Brandon Saad out of the USNTDP being looked to early as a top prospect. Other big 2011 names are the likes of Shane McColgan out of California and currently in Kelowna of the WHL, Seth Ambroz, Nick Shore, and Matthew Nieto amongst many others. The US is coming on strong and their stream of talent isnít stopping anytime soon.
Another big reason for the rise in USA Hockey has been the United State Hockey League (USHL), the USís answer to the CHL for high-level junior hockey. As Gabriel Desjardins showed in 2007, the USHLís league quality is steadily climbing into an impressive range and I wouldnít be surprised if that number gets even higher in 2010. The most common goal for many minor midget players in the US is to reach the USHL so that they can advance their hockey careers because unlike in the CHL, where the NCAA doesnít allow players to transfer over, they do accept USHL players. Thus, high-end 17 year olds who donít go into the USNTDP commonly find themselves in the USHL if they want to pursue a college career afterwards.
The NCAA has also been a big help for American players, offering NHL teams who draft their players four years of guaranteed development before the players need to sign with the team that selected them. This allows Americans to avoid being rushed, which could in turn hamper their development and make the next step to professional hockey much more difficult. Offering a college lifestyle and a proper development environment is invaluable to the youngsters preparing for the big transition. The NCAA may not be as high quality competition-wise as the CHL, but thereís a good reason why choosing between the CHL and the NCAA is a very difficult choice.
The culmination of all these factors, proper expansion, housing for developing high-end prospects, post-Draft development in college and more exposure across the country, is what has led to the USAís recent success. Nobody ever said Sidney Crosby was going to spurt out of New Mexico anytime soon, but the development is happening and the effects are starting to show as the US grows as a hockey country. The fact that they have so much room to grow might be scary for the perennial powerhouses who were used to consistenly being at the top of the hockey hierarchy. The USA isnít dethroning Canada anytime soon as the premier North American hockey country, but they may not take to being called the little brother for much longer, especially if they get a rematch against Canada on Sunday and end up victorious against them for the second time in this tournament in route to winning their first gold medal since 1980.
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Corey Pronman is a contributor to Puck Prospectus, an Associate Scout for the USHL Sioux Falls Stampede and runs the statistical hockey site The Hock Project. You can contact him at CPronman@fau.edu.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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