USA Hockey’s Crisis of Identity

This is an article I wrote for the school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in October 2016 that was never published. Now that I have graduated, I am going back and publishing some of the writing I did during the semester.

Another international hockey tournament is in the books, and it’s another disappointing outcome for the United States. A fundamentally flawed Team USA posted a pathetic 0-3-0 record in the World Cup of Hockey in the first major tournament since failing to win a medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In 2014, I expressed my skepticism on my blog when the Olympic roster was announced and Bobby Ryan was left off it, and in 2016 when players like Phil Kessel and Kevin Shattenkirk were left off, things did not look good for Team USA.

Team USA has had different general managers in their different tournaments this decade, but it has become clear that whether it’s Brian Burke (2010 Olympics, current President of the Calgary Flames, President of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time), David Poile (2014 Olympics, current general manager of the Nashville Predators), or Dean Lombardi (2016 World Cup, current general manager of the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings), all successful NHL GMs, that it does not matter who is calling the shots, and that the collective brain trust of USA Hockey is trapped in 1980, with the Miracle on Ice being the only blueprint they know in which to construct an international championship team.

When the United States Men’s Hockey Team took home the Gold Medal in 1980, it was called a Miracle for a reason. It was a college All-Star team that played the game of their lives against the Soviet Union, a squad of veteran players who satisfied their military service requirements by training full time to be the best hockey team on the face of the earth, and the lines and defensive pairings on that roster had been playing together for years. The American team won a game they shouldn’t have in the semi-final round against the Soviets and rode that momentum to a win over Finland in the Gold Medal Game. It was a miracle, and it was the greatest moment for hockey in America, edging out any Stanley Cup moment because it was something fans in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, or anywhere in this country could get behind… but a miracle is no way to build sustained success.

In the years that followed, but especially starting in 1998, when NHL players were first allowed to compete in the Olympics, USA Hockey has built their teams in the model of the 1980 team, even though the landscape of the games have fundamentally changed since then. Everyone has professionals playing, and while Canada has the greatest collection of national talent, countries like the United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic all have enough NHL talent to field competitive teams for the Olympics or the World Cup (the NHL talent of Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland was consolidated onto a new Team Europe for the World Cup), and the conventional wisdom would be to put as many of the best, most talented players your country has to offer on the team. The powers that be in USA Hockey think otherwise. Why waste a perfectly good roster spot on a scorer like Phil Kessel or Bobby Ryan when you can add some grit and toughness (when there is almost no hitting in these international tournaments anyway) by putting Brandon Dubinsky or Blake Wheeler on the team in their place.

The closest the United States came to winning Gold in this era was the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Most of the team was young and new to the international stage. Vezina Trophy winning goalie Ryan Miller make crucial save after crucial save, and they took Canada to sudden-death overtime in the Gold Medal Game before Sidney Crosby put the puck in the net to win it. They came up short, but the way they played to earn that Silver Medal reinforced belief in the 1980 ideology. Since then, the players from that tournament have gone from young players to veterans, and in 2016 it showed that Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, and David Backes (who signed a five year, $30 million contract with the Bruins this past summer) are not the players they were in 2010.

For Team USA, the World Cup of Hockey was a disaster, a complete institutional failure. The question is, do the decision makers in that institution, some of the best and brightest hockey minds this country has, have the ability to see why they failed? Or are they too close to it to have any perspective. Time will tell, but this tournament gave no reason for American hockey fans to feel good about the future.

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