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USA hockey took off after 'Miracle,' Gretzky to LA

Thursday, 02.16.2012 / 3:45 PM / Hockey Weekend Across America

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

They grew up on 1980, on Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig and Herb Brooks. They grew up on a shot and a dream that unbelievably came true.

That Olympic tournament in Lake Placid 32 years ago, that historic win by the rag-tag group of American kids led by one of the hardest-driving coaches on the planet, sent the United States into a euphoric celebration that gave birth to a new generation of hockey superstar in the country.

Jeremy Roenick. Brian Leetch. Brett Hull. Mike Modano. Chris Chelios. Doug Weight. Bill Guerin. Mike Richter. And the list goes on.

They were all kids of 1980; the generation after the origination. And today, as the sport is celebrated throughout the country with Hockey Weekend Across America, they are the revered stewards for the current generation of American stars and future millionaires and champions to be.

The "Miracle on Ice" gave birth to a new generation of hockey superstars in the USA. (Photo: Getty Images)
"You know, 1980 had a big effect on me," Roenick told NHL.com recently. "And it's nice now, being retired from the game and seeing how the game evolved in the States, knowing that kids watched Jeremy Roenick or Mike Modano or Keith Tkachuk or Chris Chelios, and they played hockey because of us. You can't ask for much more of a good feeling and an honor than that."

To a man, Roenick, Leetch and Hull say the rise of hockey in the United States has been incredible.

They look back at their generation and see how it began to take form. They see the current generation and the fruits of their success. They look to the future and see an infinite amount of possibilities.

The statistics back them up.

A total of 178 Americans have been top-60 picks at the NHL Draft since 1999. In the 18 years prior, only 138 Americans were top-60 picks. In 2007 there were 21 Americans selected in the top-60 and a record 62 in the entire 211-pick draft, including No. 1 pick Patrick Kane.

The creation and rise of the United States National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., has a lot to do with the increased volume of American draft picks. Players from the USNTDP have been draft eligible since 1999; nearly 200 of them have been selected.

"You really have to give USA Hockey a lot of credit on the grassroots initiatives they've done and trying to get people involved," Leetch told NHL.com. "Whether they stay with it or not, it has introduced more and more people to hockey. They've done a great job through street hockey and roller blading, getting kids out there with a stick and a ball, and putting them in position to shoot on a net and to understand a little bit about the game. Then they go home and a few of them say they want to do ice skating in the winter.

"I think that's why when you look at the NHL Draft now, it's not only Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan. Guys are being drafted from upstate New York, California, all different areas," he continued. "The U.S. Developmental Team is taking kids from all different areas, putting them in good structure, giving them training and they've been able to make the leap."

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The 60 American players picked in 2011 represented 17 states, including Zac Larraza, who became the first Arizona-trained draft pick when he was selected by the Coyotes in the seventh round.

The first American picked last year, J.T. Miller at No. 14, is from Ohio. Stefan Noesen, the 21st pick, is from Texas. Tyler Biggs, No. 22, is from New York. Rocco Grimaldi, the 33rd pick, is from California. Scott Mayfield, the 34th pick, is from Missouri.

"That's good diversity for the National Hockey League because we know it's getting in front of a lot of eyes," said Roenick, who still lives in the Phoenix area. "When the Coyotes went there in '96, there was one arena and it was terrible. Now there are five or six beautiful double-arena venues that are full with kids every night. It's a license to print money at these arenas, and that's a good thing because there still is not enough ice with so many kids coming and involved with it."

The kind of so-called grassroots hockey expansion into non-traditional states would not have been possible without Wayne Gretzky's trade to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Many experienced hockey men, including Hull, Leetch and Roenick, say Gretzky's move to Hollywood is the reason the NHL is now in Florida, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim and Nashville.

"Certainly, the progression of the game in the United States and expansion to warm weather climates -- the trickle-down effect that that has had on a lot of youths and players in the U.S. -- would have been delayed," Leetch said. "Whether it would have happened at all? Who knows, you can't foresee, but it would have certainly been delayed."

"(Gretzky) revolutionized the game in America for people that really didn't understand it," Roenick added. "Kudos to him for making it work."

Gretzky humbly deflects any of the credit. He instead says his move to L.A. was part of a larger sporting culture change going on in the United States in the 1990s.

"I was lucky that when I went to L.A., we had (Steve) Yzerman in Detroit, we had Mario (Lemieux) in Pittsburgh, we had Brett Hull doing what he did in St. Louis, and of course then (Mark) Messier going into New York," Gretzky told NHL.com. "We had each part of the country where we were playing covered with guys that people wanted to go watch and see play. Just as important, those guys were really good in promoting our game and selling our game, so we got a really nice springboard there."

"You know, 1980 had a big effect on me. And it's nice now, being retired from the game and seeing how the game evolved in the States, knowing that kids watched Jeremy Roenick or Mike Modano or Keith Tkachuk or Chris Chelios, and they played hockey because of us. You can't ask for much more of a good feeling and an honor than that." -- Jeremy Roenick

The springboard has led to the current generation of American stars such as Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Ryan Miller, Max Pacioretty and David Backes -- all of whom can be seen on NBC or the NBC Sports Network on Sunday for the Hockey Day in America celebration.

The future American hockey stars are developing. More are on the way, honing their skills at local rinks from California to Connecticut.

Twenty years ago, that was the dream. Thirty-two years ago, it wasn't even considered a real possibility.

"I tell people this all the time, if you want to take the 15 best 10-year-olds in California, put them on a team, make them travel across Canada and play all the best teams in Canada, they would fare very, very well," Gretzky said. "Twenty years ago, it wasn't even close.

"It's progressing. It's still going to take time. It won't be the first four kids in this year's NHL Draft coming out of L.A. or Dallas, but in time here more and more of these kids are going to get drafted. Look at all the kids that came out of Boston because of Bobby Orr being there in the late '60s and early '70s. That's what you're going to get more and more of."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

Once again, it shows character in this dressing room. Once again, there's no quitting in here. We all wanted this so bad and we worked so hard to get home-ice advantage and we weren't going to let this one slide.

— Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog on his team's OT Game 1 win vs. Minnesota Wild