The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on Meghan Duggan. A little more than an hour after being introduced, along with her 20 teammates, in front of a record crowd at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., with millions more watching at home, the captain of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team was asked to sum up the significance of her second Olympic experience.
The Danvers, Mass., native flashed back to all those who had helped her along the way, and how privileged she felt to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls who will one day wear the red, white and blue in Olympic competition.
“As women we have grown up wanting to be on this team since they had a team in 1998 and won a gold medal in Nagano. I remember watching Cammi Granato, Gretchen Ulion and Karyn Bye and
wanting to be just like them,” said Duggan, joined on the dais by teammate Jessie Vetter and history-making coach Katey Stone.
“I take a lot of pride in being a female hockey player, and everyone on our team does as well. It’s great to see the growth of the women’s game the last few years, and I imagine that it’s only going to get even bigger.”
Moments earlier, U.S. Men’s Olympic Team General Manager David Poile sat alone on the same stage, looking to put the best spin on why NHL stars Bobby Ryan and Jack Johnson were left off the 25-man roster.
The truth was that there were no easy answers or short sound bytes, but he did his best to explain to reporters the decisions reached by the U.S. Advisory Group that he led through months of deliberation.
“If I can say this in the right way, this is the first time that we’re having to make similar decisions that Canada has made for years where we’re leaving off top, top players,” said Poile, who added the responsibility to pick an Olympic team to his full-time duties as the GM of the Nashville Predators.
To the casual fan, international competition is what USA Hockey is all about. But to all those who know, the international success achieved by U.S. teams is the result of the hard work of dedicated grass-roots volunteers who go about the business of hockey in anonymity, spending countless hours in local rinks. It’s this legion of volunteers who form the building blocks that help young girls and boys become better hockey players and even better people.
“I had a plethora of coaches that helped me, from the time I was a Mite who taught me how to skate and all the life lessons I learned growing up playing the game,” said St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, who grew up playing hockey in the Minneapolis suburb of Spring Lake Park, Minn.
“All those guys were a huge impact in my life, and if I started naming them you’d run out of tape before I was done. But they know who they are and I’m still grateful for them and try to acknowledge them at every point possible.”
“USA Hockey is doing a really good job of developing the player pool and the coaching pool.”
— Brian Burke, GM of the 2010 silver-medal team.
For a select few, it means having the privilege of wearing the USA crest on a National Team jersey. And these people wear the jersey with pride, and they do so because they are part of something bigger than themselves.
“USA Hockey is doing a really good job of developing the player pool and the coaching pool,” said Brian Burke, who is handling the player personnel duties after serving as the GM of the 2010 silver-medal team.
“You look at the World Juniors, Under-18, all of it, and there has just been explosive growth and explosive improvement. Decisions get harder, but that’s a nice problem to have.”
Those tough decisions know no gender bounds, either. Stone and her staff agonized over the player decisions they made in Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of the U.S. Women’s National Team Camp, trimming the roster from 41 down to 25, and later whittling two more players, including promising young defenseman Jincy Dunne, before making the final two cuts right before Christmas.
“You don’t want these decisions to be easy at this level,” said Stone, who is the first female head coach of a U.S. Olympic Team. “The kids have done everything that we’ve asked them to do. They’ve been great teammates, they’ve worked their tails off on the ice and bought into everything that we’re trying to do in the program.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the renewed emphasis on membership growth, particularly at the 8 & Under level, and the groundswell of support for the American Development Model that promotes skill development in a fun learning environment, the talent pool looks to get deeper and the decisions made by Stone, Poile and others in the future will be that much tougher.
“The quantity and especially the quality of U.S. hockey players is growing at a fantastic rate,” Poile said. “People of the ADM program and all the things that have happened and will continue to happen to the growth of USA Hockey, the competitiveness of USA Hockey for years to come is going to be there.”
Even the players are noticing it. In addition to the outstanding defensemen and forwards left off the men’s squad, there were several top-flight goaltenders that would have made many other Olympic rosters.
“It just shows where USA Hockey is heading,” said Ryan Miller, who is determined to lead the U.S. to the final step after surrendering a tough overtime goal to Sidney Crosby in the 2010 gold-medal game. “Our depth is improving with guys who are playing at a high level, and you can look around the league and there are a lot of guys who aren’t here, so it’s good to just be reminded.”
Coming off of a silver medal showing in Vancouver, both the men’s and women’s Olympic teams feel like they have some unfinished business to attend to in Sochi. Gone are the days when the U.S. enters a tournament hoping for a good result. The bar has been set high, and the programs implemented at the grass-roots level will only push the bar even higher in the future.
USA Hockey’s Executive Director Dave Ogrean may have summed it up best.
“We’re no longer in the miracles business. These days we’re in the expectations business.”