Last June, USA Hockey celebrated one of its finest moments, when Americans Patrick Kane
and James van Riemsdyk
were chosen with the first two overall picks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
There will be another moment for USA Hockey to celebrate this coming weekend, Feb. 15-17, when the first Hockey Weekend Across America will be held.
Most of the events will be geared toward getting young kids excited about hockey. But it's an event that makes some of the older American players a little bit jealous.
"This should have been around 20 years ago," said Philadelphia Flyers forward Jim Dowd, a Brick, N.J., native.
Added Mathieu Schneider of the Anaheim Ducks, who was born in New York; "This is amazing. It's great to see something like this."
Schneider, 38, is one of the vanguards of the greatest generation of American hockey players that either is winding down their NHL careers or already have hung up their skates -- a group that includes Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, John LeClair, Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick.
"I think this past generation that we've had with some of the older guys, like Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, Joel Otto, Brett Hull, on down through Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Doug Weight, it's just been, I think, the best generation of U.S.-born hockey players," Schneider said. "It looks now like it's helped grow the game an awful lot. You see it this year, top U.S. (NHL) draft picks. When we came in the League you never saw that."
Schneider's Team USA experience is highlighted by World Cup title in 1996. He also played on the 2004 World Cup squad, as well as the 1998 and 2006 Olympic teams. He hopes to play long enough to be a part of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team that goes to Vancouver. Then, he says, he'll willingly pass the torch to the future stars coming through the USA Hockey pipeline.
"There are a lot of great players, like (Patrick) Kane in Chicago, who I think is going to be one of the top guys for years to come," Schneider said. "You've got Jack Johnson in L.A. Defensemen seem to mature a lot later, but the kid has all the tools -- big, strong, moves the puck really well. I think those two guys I really like right now."
Those aren't the only two. There's a fertile crop of American players 24 and under currently playing in the NHL, all of whom will be entering their primes by the time the Vancouver games arrive. That list includes forwards like Kane, the Buffalo native taken No. 1 overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, the New Jersey Devils' Zach Parise, the Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler, the Los Angeles Kings' Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan, the Phoenix Coyotes' Peter Mueller and the Boston Bruins' Phil Kessel. On defense, there's the Kings' Johnson, Erik Johnson of the St. Louis Blues, Matt Niskanen of the Dallas Stars, Matt Carle of the San Jose Sharks and Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators.
The best American goaltending prospects currently are in the AHL -- Vancouver's Corey Schneider, the New York Rangers' Al Montoya, Detroit's Jimmy Howard -- or still in college, like St. Louis draft pick Ben Bishop.
And there's more to come. The U.S. has finished fourth or better at each World Junior Championship since 2003, including a gold medal in 2004. The 2008 American squad finished fourth, but was led by van Riemsdyk, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound power forward taken second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers. The Middletown, N.J., native led the tournament with 11 points (five goals, six assists), and was named to the All-Tournament Team. Forward Jordan Schroeder, eligible for the 2009 NHL Draft, tied for the WJC lead with seven assists.
Schneider, who played on the U.S. team at the 1988 World Juniors, said the biggest difference between when he played and now is the amount of quality players being turned out by USA Hockey.
"There's just been more depth," he said. "Even back in 1996 when we won the World Cup, after that team there weren't a whole lot of star players. Now, you could probably put a U.S. team on the ice and still maybe have a second team, the way Canada has for the last few years. You look at how the U.S. has competed at the World Juniors, even when they haven't won they've been one of the top teams each year and in contention for medals each year, which we never had before."
And with events like Hockey Weekend Across America, another generation will get a taste of life on the ice.
"It's obviously come a long ways," New Jersey Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner, a native of Cloquet, Minn., said of USA Hockey. "There are more and more (American) players in the League, and when I first got in there weren't too many. There were a handful of guys that were doing something special, and now there is a ton of them. It's exciting. The base and the amount of players that are out there right now, it's only going to get better and better."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com