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Taking A Breath

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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Okay, let’s take a breath here.

I’m not saying Team Canada is going to lose the men’s hockey tournament. By lose, of course, I mean win something other than a gold medal.  Games against Germany and Russia could very well rev the Canadian machine into gear. Having dramatically outchanced Team USA in Sunday’s game, the Canadian side could rebound and beat the Americans. I seem to recall a team that had needed to win four straight in Moscow and they did fine.

But let’s suppose for a second that the Americans were to take home the gold.
They would certainly be worthy winners, having beaten Canada at least once and perhaps twice.

Our national pride would be smacked down but perhaps the loss would be assuaged by a victory by the women. Last I looked, they were playing for us too.

And would the game be the poorer for an American victory. I don’t think so.

Since the six-team NHL was distended past any recognition, hockey fans have complained about a diluted talent pool.  The NHL’s response has been to point at the influx of players from Russia, Sweden and the United States who have kept  the talent level afloat.

But online participation data indicates the number of Czech players in the league dropped from 7.4 in 2002-2003 to 5.9 last season. The number of Russian players fell from 5.8 per cent to 3.3 per cent. Sweden is down as well from 5.9 per cent to 5.4.

Things don’t look to change a whole lot. The Russian Continental League covets high-end talent and its continued survival would give European players a fine livelihood gained much closer to home.  NHL general managers are often suspicious of Russian players who can be difficult to bring to North America. 
Now consider North America. USA Hockey reports about 600,000 members, within shouting distance of Canada’s 700,000. Canada still holds a dramatic advantage with 52.3 per cent NHL players hailing from the true north. That’s a jump of half a percentage point averaged over six years. But Americans last year made up over 22 per cent of the league, way up from the 14.3 per cent six years previous.

The answer to where top-notch NHL talent will come from seems clear enough. While Ilya Kovulchuk and Alexander Ovechkin are glittering stars, and while the Canadian system continues to churn out all-star teams, the growth is in the US.

The American system has produced gifted young stars in Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Bobby Ryan as well as the game’s pre-imminent goalie in Ryan Miller. In the World Juniors and now the Olympics, American players have shown themselves to be on par with their Canadian opponents.
With 307 million people, roughly 10 times our population, there is tremendous room for growth in the American development system.

A win by the Americans at the Vancouver Olympics can spur that, just as the Miracle on Ice set the stage for the groundswell that produced Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Doug Weight.

The end result to an American win could be better hockey with more American stars like the Leafs’ Phil Kessel dotting the roster of more NHL teams.
It would be bitter consolation for Canadians, but more talent in the NHL is good for everyone. As John F. Kennedy famously noted, a rising tide raises all ships.
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