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Diamond Cuts: Red, White And Blue Hockey

by Jim Diamond / Nashville Predators
The number of U.S.-born players in the NHL continues to rise, the Nashville Predators are among those using this as a blueprint for success

When goaltender Jeremy Smith dressed for the Predators Jan. 7 game against the Carolina Hurricanes, he became the 11th United States-born player to suit up in a Nashville uniform this season.

Just two of those 11 were born when Bruce Springsteen released his “Born in the USA” album June 4, 1984, but the quality and quantity of American-born NHLers has greatly increased since then. This season, approximately one-quarter of the NHL’s players will have birth certificates that say they were born in the United States.

With such a strong American influence in the Nashville front office, it is no surprise that the Predators have their fair share of American players on the roster. General Manager David Poile was born in Canada, but possesses dual U.S./Canadian citizenship.

Dating back to his days with the then expansion Atlanta Flames, a majority of Poile’s career in professional hockey has been spent in the US. In addition to his work in the NHL, Poile has been active with USA Hockey in selecting and managing teams that represent the United States in international competition. Paul Fenton, Poile’s Assistant General Manager, is American born, and is also active with USA Hockey in addition to his duties with the Predators.

As part of the group that was tasked with selecting the squad that would represent the U.S. at last year’s World Championships, Poile and Fenton used their influence with USA Hockey to give Craig Smith, who at the time was a Nashville draftee who had just completed his sophomore season at the University of Wisconsin, an opportunity to play with predominantly NHL-level talent at the international competition.

Smith seized the opportunity presented to him at the World Championships and led the U.S. in goals scored with three. He was named one of the top three Americans in the tournament as well. His experience at the World Championships played a big part in the Madison, Wis., native’s decision to turn pro over the summer.

Smith made the Predators roster out of training camp and has ranked among the rookie leaders in goals, assists, points and power-play goals all season long.

“USA Hockey is doing a fantastic job of promoting the game, really developing their players,” Smith said. “They are giving the people the tools to progress and getting the word out about the game. I think there will be a lot more coming.”

Ryan Suter, the other Madison native on the team’s roster, says that the increasing number of U.S.-born players on the Predators is something the team has taken note of, and it has even provided an opportunity for the proud Americans to mention it to their Canadian and European teammates.

“It is something we joke around about a little,” Suter said.

Suter’s father Bob was a member of the gold medal-winning Miracle on Ice 1980 U.S. Olympic team. His uncle Gary was a long-time NHLer, and like Ryan, he owns an Olympic silver medal to go along with his well-decorated NHL career.

Selected to play in his first NHL All-Star Game this year, Suter is a product of the United States National Team Development Program and the University of Wisconsin.

“USA Hockey is evolving,” Suter said. “You don’t have one good group and then you have to wait a couple of years for another good group. They are starting to produce guys every year. There is a lot of hockey in the U.S., a lot more than there ever has been. Hopefully it continues to grow.”

Like his general manager, Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz is a Canadian-born dual U.S./Canadian citizen. Having coached in the US for more than 20 years, Trotz has seen the growth of the American game first hand. Since moving to Nashville in 1997, he has noticed that quality hockey players are being produced outside of what was once considered traditional hockey markets.

“We’re in the south, and you see the number of players; the quality of play is getting better, the quality of coaching is getting better, you are getting more and more people who have aspirations in non-traditional markets and players who have done it from non-traditional markets who have played in the National Hockey League, so those are good role models,” Trotz said.

When the U.S. battled Canada in the Gold Medal Game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Trotz noticed something about the young U.S. squad that was made up of predominantly different players than had represented the U.S. in past tournaments.

“I think you saw that in the last Olympic Games; the Gold Medal game, the U.S. was young,” Trotz said. “There was tons of talent. The US Development Program has really produced a lot of players.”

As the NHL has expanded, the number of kids taking up hockey has also grown.

“The number of players who play in the United States probably has exceeded the number who play in Canada now,” Trotz said. “The game continues to grow. It is shear volume and better athletes playing our game. In Canada, it is always Canada’s game in terms of percentages of people playing. There are 30 million people in Canada. The percentage is pretty high that they play hockey at some point in their life. There are 300 million people in the U.S., if we ever get that percentage to keep creeping up higher as it does every year, at some point, the US on pure numbers will produce a number of great athletes like they always do.”

The Predators scouting staff, led by Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty, travels the globe looking for the talent who will hopefully develop into future Predators. In recent years, more of that talent is being found closer to home, and all signs point to that trend continuing.

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