Tuesday’s preliminary round matchup between the United States and Canada appeared meaningless to most outside observers as both teams had already booked passage to the next round of the World Championships.
But that wasn’t the case, especially for the Americans. Despite falling behind 3-0, Team USA battled throughout the contest and forged a 4-4 tie before losing on a last-minute goal by Canada's Dany Heatley
Despite the loss to its bitter rival, the effort in the loss is a reflection of how far USA Hockey has come during the past decade.
“That game really didn’t mean much as far as the tournament goes, but it meant a lot to us and you could see that in the way we didn’t give up and the way we battled back twice,” defenseman, and alternate captain, Mark Stuart
said. “There was no quit in us and that’s huge. It’s something to build on.”
Stuart is right on several fronts.
As far as this tournament goes, Team USA clearly has a chance to compete with the likes of Canada and Russia, the favorites coming into the World Championships. That has not always been the case. On a deeper level, Team USA’s competitiveness serves as a microcosm of where USA Hockey now stands in tournaments like the World Championships and Olympics.
At the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, a new generation of American players made their mark by beating Canada, in Montreal no less, for the title. Six years later, at the Salt Lake Olympics, that same group led the Americans to a silver medal.
In 2006, however, what was left of that 1996 group made its swan song in a disastrous showing in the Torino Olympics. But now, the signs are emerging to suggest that the Americans are on the verge of once again being an elite team on the international stage – just in time for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“I think right now you really have a changing of the guard going on,” American coach John Tortorella said. “The Mike Modanos and the Keith Tkachuk
’s played their role for a while and now we moved into a new generation. The development of these young players is finally coming to fruition and the future is bright heading toward the Olympics.”
The resurgence of USA Hockey at all levels was clearly evident during the past year. It began at last June’s NHL Entry Draft, where the first two players selected -- Pat Kane and James vanRiemsdyk -- were both American. That was a Draft first. In all, eight other American were taken in the first round. Eleven more U.S.-born players were taken in Round 2 and, for the entire Draft, a startling 63 American players were selected.
Kane, the No. 1 pick by Chicago, had an immediate impact for the Blackhawks with 72 points and emerged as the favorite for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. He is also playing for Team USA at these World Championships.
Jim Johannsson, the assistant executive director and director of hockey operations at USA Hockey, says that the Americans have been making an impact on the international stage for the last six years and that this most-recent showing is just another manifestation of this process.
Team USA players here at the World Championships -- like Stuart, Zach Parise
, Dustin Brown
, Phil Kessel
and others -- have been making their mark since the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. As a result, when a tournament like the World Championships rolls around, where NHL players have a large presence on the top teams, Team USA no longer has to search and beg players to play. That was a scenario that was far too common in the not-so-distant past.
“If you look at it, we’ve been doing very well at the international level in the 16-20 age group, winning the 2004 Under-20 World Junior Championships, and the 2002 Under-18 Championships and we’ve been competing for gold every year,” Johannsson said.
In the past, it wasn’t so much decision-making of who is on a team for a tournament like this. It was, ‘This guy’s available so he’s on the team.’ You took whomever you could get. Now, we’re seeing all of those players have an impact at the pro level. We’ve now reached a point of having so many capable players, especially at the forward and defense positions, that we now actually have to pick and choose. That’s a choice we gladly welcome. - Jim Johannsson
“In the past, it wasn’t so much decision-making of who is on a team for a tournament like this. It was, ‘This guy’s available so he’s on the team.’ You took whomever you could get. Now, we’re seeing all of those players have an impact at the pro level. We’ve now reached a point of having so many capable players, especially at the forward and defense positions, that we now actually have to pick and choose. That’s a choice we gladly welcome.”
Johannsson credits the U.S. National Team Development Program and the emergence of junior leagues in the United States, specifically the USHL, for a portion of this growth. The USHL saw 14 players drafted to NHL clubs last June. The NTDP placed 13 players into the Draft.
“With a league like the USHL, our players now have more choices of where they can go to develop their game and they can stay here in the United States,” Johannsson said. “It used to be you had to go to the Canadian junior leagues or wait until college to get noticed by pro scouts. Now, they see the impact that the USHL had on last year’s draft and they can stay here now. It’s nice to see a developmental league do what it’s intended to do and develop these kids. It allows parents and the kids to not feel like they have to rush their development.”
The National Team Development Program provides a similar atmosphere to the USHL, but also fosters a nationalistic spirit among the players that pays long-term dividends to USA Hockey.
“I think you see it now and hear it when you talk to the players on these teams for the World Championships or soon the Olympics, that the players appreciate the importance of playing for their country,” Johannsson said. “I credit the National Development Program for that because a lot of these guys have lived together and played together for years. They’ve gone through the ups and downs of not only growing as a player, but as a person too and, because of that, they’re not just teammates, they’re friends. That bond obviously can play a huge role on the ice.”
“A lot of us grew up playing together and we keep in touch, so when we get to play together again, we look forward to it and want to win together,” Stuart said.
This is why Johannsson is so excited about a tournament like these World Championships, or the upcoming Olympics.
“These players aren’t just hoping to survive or win a game here and there,” he said. “They’re hoping to knock down doors and show the world that USA Hockey is back on the map!”