Culture Clubs Where
does USA Hockey go after its lost weekend in Sochi?
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Now that the American national hockey disaster
known at the 2014 Winter Olympics has concluded, many have weighed in
on where the status of the game in the U.S. stands.
I joke when using the word 'disaster,' I think of it as lost weekend
in Sochi rather than a major step backwards for American hockey.
Team USA was outplayed and outcoached in losses to Canada and Finland,
and the degree of the lack of effort in the bronze medal game is a
painful punctuation mark of the fortnight in Russia.
To deem the entire effort as disaster is overstating things; I didn't have the Americans coming home with a medal, accurately predicting they would drop the consolation match -- albeit, I had them losing to a team that were the true underachievers of the tournament, the home standing Russians.
If there is a program in turmoil, it's the Russians given the dual failures of Alex Ovechkin and Geno Malkin that puts them at the top of Vladimir Putin's hit list.
The Swedish effort in their 3-0 loss on early Sunday mitigated the American semi-final loss as the Scandinavians produced a similar muted effort. The last minute loss of Nicklas Backstrom sealed the Swedish fate against a Mike Babcock-coached squad focused on not surrendering an inch of ice, but with the Swedes mirroring the USA's effort against Canada, it's more a testament to the Canadian superiority in the tournament than the goose egg the Red, White and Blue put on the board when it counted the most.
The Americans walk away from these Olympics knowing they have developed world-class goaltending in consecutive Olympics. Ryan Miller carried them to within a Sidney Crosby goal of the Gold in Vancouver and his successor Jonathan Quick could have been a national hero if Dan Bylsma had come to the semi-final with better offensive strategy against a Canadian defense that proved to be impenetrable.
It's mindboggling to think that the Latvians produced more offense than the Americans or Swedes against the Golden Boys, but give full credit to Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Carey Price for a smothering, stifling effort as the games grew in importance. The Americans have developed fleet, productive wingers and mobile defenseman lacking overall size so at this stage the program can only be defined as competitive and not championship caliber.
The Sochi lost weekend does bring into focus where the challenges are if USA Hockey is to return to the top of the podium for the first time since 1980, should NHL participation continue at the Olympics -- a sketchy proposition at this point.
While the two points certainly don't totally define why the USA can't get past their Canadian archrivals, they are major factors:
1. The next Great American Center
The reason I had the USA on the outside looking for a medal and not getting past the Canadians was the mismatch down the middle. David Backes, Joe Pavelski and Paul Statsny are quality players, but none are a No. 1 center. When the Gold was on the line Sunday, who was shocked that Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby stepped up as they did in Vancouver to secure the victory?
Second-guessers note that the addition of Kyle Okposo and Bobby Ryan might have made a difference in Sochi, but without a facilitator present, they would have been as ineffective as the wingers who made the cut. Over the past 20 years, only one American center, Pat LaFontaine, has made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and while Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick have left an indelible mark on the game playing the middle, the fact remains that the Americans are far behind Canada in developing players for this pivotal position. If there is a glaring failure of USA Hockey over the past 10 years, it's the inability to bring forward the next Great American Center.
2. It's THEIR game (it really is)
When Canadians en masse reaffirmed that hockey is their game on Sunday morning, it was more a statement of fact than an expression of national pride. Despite the great disparity in population between the U.S. and Canada, the game's status will never approach the degree of importance than it does north of the border and conversely, our overall sports heritage doesn't put kids on skates at the age of three.
Though hockey has made inroads and more Americans will play in the NHL as the years pass, football, basketball and to a lesser extent baseball still grab the most skilled. If Ryan Getzlaf was born in Newport Beach, he probably would have been a star high school quarterback and played at USC. I imagine that if Shea Weber was born in Nashville instead of British Columbia, he would have been roving the field as a middle linebacker for the Tennessee Volunteers. While we will continue to see growth of hockey in the States and one day could defeat Canada in international competition, how do you surpass a nation where the sport is not a sport but a way of life and success is defined as nothing less than winning it all?
Should USA Hockey look at an overhaul of the management team as a consequence of not returning with a medal? Since the goal was to win and not just compete, there should be accountability in the executive suite and behind the bench, but only to the extent of what the expectations was coming in.
The Americans were a consensus third choice at best behind Canada and Sweden coming into the tournament and their strong performance in the non-medal round against inferior competition falsely raised hopes.
Considering that the victorious Canadian GM Steve Yzerman has chosen to step away -- "It's time to move on," he said moments after the Gold was awarded -- it's certainly within reason to examine an American organization that is known more for its failures than successes.