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In Russia, Welcome Winds of Change for Team USA

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
MOSCOW—May 12, 2007–There was palpable buzz about Team USA at this World Championship, and while the Americans failed to advance to the medal round in Moscow, it's worth reflecting on the overhaul of roster assembly USA Hockey commendably, if belatedly, sanctioned this year. It should have American hockey fans excited. 

 For far too long there had been an ad hoc, inorganic, and at times poisonously politicized approach to the assembly of the American teams dispatched to the Worlds, resulting in disjointed and disappointing performances. Previous teams were comprised basically of marquee American names liberated from NHL postseason play, without seemingly much thought given to crafting a roster that could rival the chemistry so commonly displayed by the European teams at this championship. The results speak for themselves: a bronze medal in 2004, one in 1996, the last gold all the way back in 1960. 

 But from our vantage, this year's American outfit shattered that failed mold. The 2007 American entry at the Worlds was a wondrously entertaining and cohesive club, chock full of hunger and high energy, the type of team to make American hockey fans proud.    

 The good news from Moscow is that the American present, rather than its past, appears to be prologue. The first signs of a new way of thinking at the top of USA Hockey came months back, with the establishment of an advisory committee of distinguished NHL general managers -- David Poile, Don Waddell, Pat Quinn, and Ray Shero. Outside expert consultants, if you will. They spent the NHL season not only tending to their respective clubs but keeping a keen eye on the full spectrum of American talent at all levels of professional and even intercollegiate hockey. USA Hockey then hired a fresh face and fiery force in Mike Sullivan for its Worlds bench. The American brass opened its roster to distinguished collegians. And the advisory committee and USA Hockey embraced an ethos of skilled speed showcased in cohesive fashion. They also selected players with the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver in mind, seeking to use the 2007 Worlds as a launching pad for an incredibly young national team that could potentially peek in three years'' time.  

 Most importantly, the architects insisted on sending 20-plus Americans to Russia who individually and collectively bore a high-pitched passion for playing for their country. It showed.  

Entering the final 20 minutes Thursday night at Khodynka Arena, the Americans trailed the Finns 4-3 -- no enviable position, that. But the entirety of the final stanza was decidedly tilted the Americans'' way, Andrew Hutchinson gorgeously one-timing a rocket roofer past Kari Lehtonen's right shoulder and sending the American bench and its supporters in the stands into a frenzy. The Finns prevailed in a shootout, but in the opening ten-minute extra session the Americans were mere inches of struck goalposts away from advancing to the semifinals. In his post-game press conference afterward, Finland head coach Erkka Westerlund professed more than the traditionally diplomatic admiration for his foe: "I appreciate the style of Team USA," he offered, "Maybe it was luck in the end we won the game." 

There was one lone disappointing performance by the Americans in Moscow, against Canada in the final game of preliminary play, but even then, an opening 20 minutes of miscues was followed by 40 minutes of drive and determination, the Americans controlling the play and outscoring the Canadians in the final two stanzas. 

The day before the quarterfinal game against Finland, at the Americans'' practice, captain Chris Clark put an exclamation point on the success of USA Hockey's roster architecture for these games. The potential absence of the Caps'' 30-goal captain -- hobbled by a deep leg bruise -- was garnering increasing concern among the press, but not the U.S. captain: "The talent level on this team is incredible. And they're so young, they're only going to get better." 

The imprint of the United States National Team Development Program was all over this Worlds roster, from Phil Kessel to Erik Johnson to Jack Johnson to Zach Parise. USA Hockey has enjoyed considerable success with its Under-17, Under-18, and Under-20 programs in recent years, and the early maturation of many key performers from those teams carried the Americans to unprecedented heights here in Moscow: Team USA instilled on-the-record fear among its rival coaching staffs. 

Once upon a time not all that long ago, American fortunes on international hockey's grandest stages were contingent on a handful of hockey-mad northern U.S. states producing talent enough to keep the U.S. on the cusp of contention. The best of it would break through to the NHL. Some of them would embrace the call for country deep into spring and travel to Europe, to compete in a tournament few back home cared about.  

A half generation later, there is in place now a plan to proactively recruit and develop hockey talent from among America's greatest athletes across the nation, and send to medal missions only dedicated and driven ambassadors. The mission has been given a renewed and rebuilt priority. Hodge-podge teams of the past may well have been replaced by this 2007, expertly constructed blueprint of blazers in red, white, and blue. At the 2007 World Championships, we saw the dawn of a promising new day on sheets of ice 5,000 miles away from home. America's hockey establishment seemed to announce to its fans that it was committed to constructing a national team built for annual, and not just Olympic, contention.                 

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