Saturday, June 26, 2010

Rise of American Hockey

Like maple syrup and the use of the word “eh”, ice hockey has always been dominated by Canada. They dominated professional hockey while the Soviet Union dominated amateur hockey. The U.S. presence was slim, and even though the league was based in the States the country generally didn’t care enough about the sport to produce strong hockey players. All of that has changed.

It began with what Sports Illustrated called the best sports moment of the century: the American gold medal-winning Olympic Hockey team. We all know the story well, as we should. There was never a more David vs. Goliath sports story than that of the American college kids against the Soviet Red Army. The magnitude of the political and societal backdrop has never been replicated in international play in any sport. It took the entire country along for the ride, and it left a huge impression on those kids tuning in.
Interest in youth hockey rose dramatically after the Lake Placid games. Those young boys who watched Herb Brooks’ team developed into the team that would eventually win gold in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Since the 90s, more and more American players are being drafted in the higher rounds. The U.S. National Team Development Program has become a popular training spot and produced players like Patrick Kane.
It all seems to be coming together now. The U.S. won silver in Vancouver, stunning most of the hockey world after beating Canada 5-3 in round robin play. Goalie Ryan Miller became a national hero, earning Olympic MVP honors and more cheers than Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh the first game after the break. It was a young team with heart and grit, and that’s not even the best to come.

More importantly for the development of hockey in America, the U.S. swept all of the world junior tournaments. Our U20, U18, and U17 teams all won gold medals in the prestigious international tournaments, beating Canada’s juniors in the gold medal game in the U20 and U17 tournaments. Some of these results can be misleading, because there are many American players who are trained in Canada but still compete for America in international play. However, at least half of these players were U.S. trained, and the strength of the U.S. program has continued to show it’s promise in the draft.

In the 2010 NHL Entry Draft yesterday, a record 11 U.S. raised and trained players were taken in the first round. American kids are realizing that they don’t have to go to Canada to make it to the NHL, and more and more of them are opting to stay closer to home in order to develop their games. The U.S. has rising stars in every position: Patrick Kane and Bobby Ryan at forward, John Carlson and Cam Fowler patrolling the blueline, and Ryan Miller and Jack Campbell in net.

The future is very, very bright for American hockey. The recent success of the national teams at every level will only encourage and increase interest. Canada has historically owned the world in terms of developing players, but the United States is ready to challenge. Canadian hockey went into a tail spin when they failed to win any of the world junior tournaments, and the threat the U.S. made at the Olympics (an overtime away from the gold) didn’t help to quell those fears. Nevertheless, the world has been put on notice: elite hockey is here to stay in America.

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