American hockey is near the end of one era and on the verge of another.
First came the gold medal at the 1960 Winter Olympics and then the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” gold medal team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. A third significant episode in American hockey history came in 1996 when Team USA shocked the world by winning the World Cup of Hockey.
The core group of players on the American roster – Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Mike Richter and Jeremy Roenick, to name a few – starred in the NHL in the 1990s. While some have retired, others continue to keep playing in the NHL.
Now, later in their careers, the accomplishments continue to pile up. Roenick, who plays for San Jose, is the latest of that group to reach a major statistical milestone when he scored his 500th goal on Nov. 10. He became the third American to reach that milestone, joining former Penguins great Joey Mullen and Mike Modano, who reached 500 goals last season.
|Jeremy Roenick scored many key goals for Team USA in international play. |
“That’s a great honor. To even mention 500 goals, I don’t know how many will hit that milestone,” Penguins winger Ryan Malone said. “It’s a huge accomplishment, especially for an American-born player. There are only three of them. He’s done a great job.
“That’s a lot of goals and he wanted it bad. He and Modano and Chelios – they are still playing and it’s been a long time,” said Penguins winger Jeff Taffe, also an American. “But, J.R. plays hard every night and he doesn’t shy away from anything. He is just a great team guy.”
That group inspired a whole new generation of American players to take up the game of hockey.
“I definitely remember being him on Sega Genesis hockey. He was the best player,” Malone said with a laugh. “As an American-born player, you always recognize and look up to the guys that are before you. J.R. is right up there with Chelios and Modano and Hull. That was a great group of guys to really kick start this generation of American players.
“In the World Cup and the Olympics, we’d always follow those guys. It wasn’t too long ago and I think they did inspire another generation. I think you’re seeing that with the Patrick Kanes and the new guys. I definitely think USA Hockey is on the upside because of those guys.”
Taffe has noticed a growth in American hockey, thanks to that group.
“I think so. You look at how many U.S. kids are on teams now in the NHL. I think it’s a huge jump. Even my first year in the NHL, there weren’t a ton of American guys in the NHL,” he said. “Now, you’re seeing high draft picks and everything. I think those guys definitely played a huge role. It’s always a huge accomplishment when you can beat some of those other powerhouses like Canada and Russia and some of those teams. That’s what they thrive on – international competition. For them to win was big and I definitely think they pushed the sport.”
Roenick was thrilled to be a part of that generation and is happy to see a whole new wave of American talent on the rise.
“It was great being a part of what I believe is probably the resurgence of hockey internationally, being a part of the generation of Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Mike Richter, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk,” he said. “I think that helped put America on the map in terms of being able to compete with the Russians with the Canadians, with the Finns, with the Swedes, and now trying to do that continually into the future.
“With having the pro players that nowadays are in the NHL participate is also very important, which wasn’t there when I was growing up. We didn’t have too many USA Hockey players when I started to play the game in the 1980s that we could bring on to help these young kids develop. I think that has turned the corner in the past 20 years. I think guys that are in the NHL now can really be a big part of helping USA Hockey grow as this game gets stronger and stronger.”
|Jeremy Roenick helped lead Team USA to a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. |
However, Roenick knows that there is still a lot of hard work in store for future generations of players.
“Kids are younger, faster, stronger and they have more ability. In order to keep that competitiveness, there has to be a lot of energy thrown into development of these kids, which, if we don’t as a country really buy into it, we’re going to find ourselves falling and fading back into the B pools and the bottom of the ranks internationally, which I think would be a shame after everything we’ve done as a country,” he said. “USA Hockey is very dear to my heart and I’m going to do what I can to help it grow and help it produce some more players like Mike Modano, Chris Chelios and Keith Tkachuk. Guys like Patrick Kane in Chicago are going to be a part of keeping that tradition going. We have to keep those guys up in the forefront of our minds, in the papers, in the magazines and keep kids that are growing up right now interested in guys like that that keep USA Hockey growing.”
The future looks bright for USA Hockey with Kane and James vanRiemsdyk going 1-2 in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft – the first time American-born players were drafted with the first two selections. And, Erik Johnson was drafted first overall in 2006, making the past two drafts the first time Americans have been picked first in consecutive years.
Roenick hopes this new wave of players will represent Team USA well at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“I think it's an awesome, awesome venue for the Olympic Games. When I saw that Vancouver got the Olympic Games, I couldn't be happier for the site they picked. It's been one of my favorite places to play in my career,” he said. “Hopefully the U.S. guys, guys like Patrick Kane, we’re going to need guys like him to bolster a group to compete in that. I mean, it’s going to be some great hockey. Obviously the Russians are still strong. The Canadians are the ever-so-powerful dynasty. If we want to do anything in the Olympics, guys like Patrick are going to have to really step up and show why they’re so dominant in the National Hockey League and why they’re stars.
“But it's good because we are so close to the States, being in Vancouver, it’s right across the border, I think a lot of U.S. people can get up there and support the team and see what I think is like the next generation of players coming into international hockey, which is very, very important.”