Monday, March 01, 2010

On To Sochi

First, it was a hard loss. Losing the gold medal in overtime will never be easy. But the American effort was a very good in an outstanding tournament. With two silver medals in the last three Olympic Games, the United States is firmly ahead of the non-Canada remainder of their peers populating the Big Six. With the KHL exposed as a fraud, any NHL style tournament is going to favor the team that can dress a roster of good, current NHL players. Only Canada and the United States can do that.

It has been verified again; Canada produces the best players in the world. Coming into the tournament, only Zach Parise would be a lock to make the Canadian roster. As the tournament played out, you could definitely add Ryan Miller- and perhaps make a case that Ryan Suter and Brian Rafalski were better defensive options.

Still, the talent disparity was driven home during the overtime. Stripped of their ability to play a “hockey system”, the Americans were finally forced to trade chances with Canada. A fairly even game throughout, now the USA could not match Canada’s outstanding puck movement, let alone get it through the neutral zone. What pair of American wingers is fast, skilled and strong enough to run the give and go Crosby and Iginla won the game with?

This only serves to drive home the tremendous job Brian Burke, Ron Wilson and USA Hockey did assembling this roster. First, Burke internalized two lessons from Turino: in a short tournament, defense comes together first and competent world class defensemen are thicker on the ground than forwards. No matter how problematic your wingers and centers, a decent hockey nation can build a defense that keeps Russia and Canada to three goals. Accordingly, Burkee took his singular world class asset- goalie Ryan Miller- and surrounded him with a collection of defensemen that could play poised at this level. He left home the offensive minded puck movers and sturdy crease clearing pylons- and instead littered his roster with guys who could first get to the puck, then get it out of their own end. Simple. Burke did not take a power play quarterback- intent to just let his defense run a straightforward successful program of let it rip from the points.

Second, Burke realized this was not 1996. The 1996 World Cup was won fair and square by the USA. The USA was simply better- the crop of players generated by the miracle of 1980- than Canada’s collective. There were numerous Americans that would made the Canada roster. Heck, the automatics were: Chelios, both Hatchers, Leetch, LeClair, Tkachuk, Madano, Hull- before you even got to half-a-dozen debate-ables. Add in Mike Richter, and the USA was a better outfit.

That isn’t true any more. The production of hockey talent in the USA is on a downward trend. I mean, we always realized the USA isn’t likely to ever produce a Mario Lemieux, Jamomir Jagr, Sidney Crosby- our best national athletes are resolutely not playing hockey. But worse, a sport that lagged in popularity among young people has really cratered. In just the last decade, the popularity of hockey has fallen probably behind soccer and extreme winter sports for young athletes- as well as the traditional American team sports.

The core talent for American hockey has expanded zero- still all upper mid-west and New England, still zero participation outside whites with a moderate income floor. The outstanding American pro Leagues, which drive interest in young people in football, baseball and basketball, is literally close to non-existent in the US. The NHL is a bad League, with little footprint- that presents a product that by design wants to be the Swedish Elite League. What other major League clearly presented its best product in the 1980s? I say this facetiously- but it honestly says a lot about the League that it is probably looking to expand in Canada.

Burke did not fight this talent drain. He merely understood it. He asked his American journeyman forwards to not do much- just get three goals, be poised and play defense. Upfront, the US dressed twelve versions Chris Drury and Zach Parise. This minimalist strategy proved to be within their capacity most nights.

Ultimately, that is why it is bitter. The chance was there- there won’t be another time soon when USA has the better goalie. And Canada won’t fail to see the lesson about what sort of defensemen to bring to this tournament- goals and assists won’t matter so much next time. And the Russians won’t have that small, defense friendly rink in Sochi unless the NHL demands it as a price of participation.