If USA is going to fulfill its destiny as world hockey power, it needs to give its young stars a program run by progressive minds that aren’t stuck in the past.
As if being humiliated and sent packing early in the World Cup of Hockey weren’t already bad enough, the ignominy for Team USA was complete thanks to a dart thrown through cyberspace by one Phil Kessel.
Shortly after Team USA’s 4-2 loss to Canada in the World Cup, a tweet attributed to Kessel’s verified account said the following: “Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Ouch. Slammed in 140 characters by a man of few words. And we’re not even going to get into the tweet attributed to the guy from the US sledge hockey team. But any humiliation USA Hockey suffered after going 0-2-0 to start the tournament was, like the mistakes that cost them both games, entirely self-inflicted. Kessel, or somebody who got ahold of his phone, was making a joke. The irony is he wouldn’t even have been able to play in the World Cup because of a hand injury. But he should have been named to the team. Anybody who watched the playoffs last spring could see that, but apparently the brain trust behind the building of this team couldn’t.
And that is why there has to be changes. It starts at the top with USA Hockey, right from executive director David Ogrean and senior director of hockey operations Jim Johannson and it flows downward from there. They were responsible for installing a management group that picked the wrong coach and the wrong players using the wrong philosophy. And for that, they should all step aside and allow another generation of American hockey minds to try to fix this thing. It was a group that didn’t just snub Phil Kessel, it also took players such as Brandon Dubinsky and Justin Abdelkader over Kyle Okposo and Tyler Johnson. It opted for Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson on defense when it could have taken Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk.
(Dubinsky was put on the roster presumably for one reason and that was to drive Sidney Crosby to distraction. But when the lineup for the game was announced, Dubinsky wasn’t on it, largely because he’s a third-line player who isn’t really at home at this level of competition. So what exactly was the plan there? Was there even a plan at all?)
The American program at the professional level has been in shambles since the 12:20 mark of overtime of the gold medal game in Vancouver on March 1, 2010. Since that time, USA has won just two bronze medals at the World Championship. But that was supposed to all change with this World Cup. The Americans stated from the time they formed their team that they were intent on building a team that would beat Canada and it failed miserably. Twice. The people who run the team decided to hire an out-of-work coach whose coaching style has proved to be antiquated and they picked a bunch of players that might be able to muck and grind their way through an NHL season, but are no match for the competition in tournaments like this one.
And they couldn’t even get it done when they had every break imaginable. They were placed in an easy pool along with Canada to ensure they’d make it to the semifinal, with the chance to face Canada in the final. They were playing on and NHL ice surface. They were handed a gimme in the first game against what was supposed to be a far inferior Team Europe.
And they responded by scoring just two goals. They vowed to have an identity, to set the tone in games and to play with authority. They did none of those things. They talked about how passionate this group would be, how committed it would be to flag and country. None of it materialized.
And like the NHL team that needs to blow things up in the face of the obvious, so does USA Hockey, not because people like Dean Lombardi and Brian Burke are bad hockey executives, but because their ideas of how to build a team are outdated and not suited for the international game. There is something systemically wrong when a country with the resources and talent USA has comes up this dismally short.
“Whenever you’re in a situation like that, you have to step back and say, ‘What are we doing wrong? How can we catch up to Canada?’ ” Max Pacioretty said. “But it wasn’t just Canada here. We lost to Team Europe as well. It feels right now, after a loss, that it was a step backward and that’s when you have to step back and realize what went wrong and try to fix it.”
Pacioretty is spot on with that one. There are so many things USA Hockey is doing well. It is growing hockey in non-traditional markets, it is selling a game that can be a difficult sell to kids all over the country. Its youngest players are mandated to play cross-ice games that focus on fun and skill development over competition. These kids are learning how to handle the puck in tight spaces and they’re getting more touches. The National Team Development Program has been a huge success on the international level, particularly at the Under-18 World Championship, where it has medalled each of the past 13 tournaments and won gold in eight of the past 12. It is a constant threat at the World Junior Championship. There were more players from St. Louis than Canada who were picked in the top 15 of the 2016 NHL draft and with the likes of Auston Matthews, Seth Jones, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Zach Werenski, there is a crop of stunning players on the way up.
“There are some good young kids there that I think..I think they’ll bring some juice to the program,” said Team USA coach John Tortorella, “as you can see right through the tournament here as the way (the American players on Team North America) played. Anxious to see them play the rest of the tournament.”
Tortorella is right. There is reason for optimism for USA Hockey. But it has to be shepherded by some new people, smart, young and dynamic people such as Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, Mike Richter and Mike Sullivan. An organization that has been mired in the past now finds itself stuck in the mud. New blood is needed and anyone who has watched this tournament can see that the time for it is right now.
All those talented young players who are on their way up deserve it. They deserve better.