A generation ago, when Herb Brooks assembled his legendary “Miracle on Ice” team in advance of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, he knew the importance of leadership.
On a squad dominated by Minnesotans that Brooks knew well from his home state, he picked a New Englander to wear the “C,” and then made it clear that nobody – not even team captain Mike Eruzione – was safe from being left home if they didn’t perform on-ice in the run-up to the Olympics.
Much has changed in the ensuing 34 years, as professionals have replaced collegians in men’s Olympic ice hockey. But the importance of leadership, in the locker room and on the ice, remains an essential ingredient to the gold-medal mix.
With that in mind, Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma, general manager David Poile and player personnel director Brian Burke put the final touches on assembling the two dozen or so men they’ll take to Russia. Throughout the selection process, they put nearly as much value on leadership as on things like skating, shooting and stopping the puck.
In Vancouver four years ago, the Americans came within an overtime goal of winning international hockey’s ultimate prize. With 13 players from that 2010 silver-medal winning squad heading to Sochi for another crack at gold, Team USA’s organizers like the leadership assembled in the room, and the fact that so many of them have Olympic experience under their belt.
“I think that’s one of our strengths,” said Poile, who serves as the Nashville Predators’ general manager when not serving his country’s hockey interests. “In 2010, the roster was virtually a turnover, if you will, from the previous generation of great USA stars. We found out a lot about our players in 2010 and found out a lot about the leadership potential.”
“I'll say something if I feel it needs to be said.”
— Dustin Brown
In 2002, the last time Brooks coached an American team in pursuit of an Olympic medal, earning silver in Salt Lake City, names like Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Doug Weight, Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick were the leaders. In 2010 when the Americans again finished as runners-up, it was clearly the next generation of American hockey stars making their mark.
Looking for a reversal of fortune this time around, the U.S. management group has tabbed five players whose body of work on the ice and in the locker room make them the perfect candidates to lead this year’s charge.
That leadership group consists of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild, the Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan of the N.Y. Rangers and David Backes from the St. Louis Blues. Brown, Backes and Callahan are all captains of their respective NHL teams, and Parise wore the “C” with the New Jersey Devils.
“We met with them in the summer, both management and coaches, to get to know them a little bit better and also to set some expectations, if you will, for leadership,” Poile said.
“They were really great at the orientation camp, when we had the total of 48 players there, in terms of supporting the coaches’ needs and wishes. We will probably pick our captain and assistant captains from those five guys.”
Unlike 1980 or 2002, when the Americans were the home team, or even in 2010 when they played in the mostly familiar setting of an NHL rink in Vancouver, Sochi is literally on the other side of the world, and it’s been well documented that American hockey teams have often taken their lumps when playing overseas.
The players who will wear the red, white and blue say with that in mind, having strong, confident, experienced leaders could make a difference when the puck is dropped in a potentially hostile environment.
“It definitely helps,” said Vancouver Canucks star forward Ryan Kesler, who played on the 2010 team. “You’re going to have adversity during the tournament and when you have so many leaders like that on your team guys step up, guys make plays, and that’s the difference in a two-week tournament. You need leaders leading leaders, and that’s what we need to have.”
Among the quintet named by Poile as the most likely leaders of the 2014 team, there is a common knowledge that the expectations are high, and everyone has to bring something to the party.
“We have a lot of vocal leaders. I’ll say something if I feel it needs to be said, but at the end of the day the best way is to lead on the ice and to hold yourself to a certain standard. That’s what I try to do,” said Brown, who captained the Kings to its first Stanley Cup in 2012.
Leadership means more than just delivering a fiery locker room speech. It can be doing the little things on the ice that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
“When your players are doing all the little things, whether it’s taking a hit to make a play or chipping the puck out or sacrificing offensive opportunities to prevent chances the other way, those are the types of things when the best players on your team are doing it, it makes it pretty easy to hold other players accountable,” Brown said.
Over the summer, the men who were likely to make up the final Team USA roster gathered outside Washington, D.C., to get acquainted, and talk about their style and their goals for Sochi. For many, even nearly four years later, the memories of Vancouver were still fresh, and the pain of
falling just short of gold was still raw.
“It still hurts,” Suter, the Minnesota Wild’s star defenseman, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Suter’s father Bob, played on the 1980 gold medal-winning team, and Ryan has made bringing a second gold medal to the family’s Wisconsin home a life goal.
“You come so close, you work so hard, and just like anybody who doesn’t win their last game, you’re disappointed. I don’t think it’ll ever wear off.”
Leadership in the locker room, success on the ice, and a trip home from Russia with gold medals to show for it, would certainly take the edge off bad memories from Vancouver.
Jess Myers is a freelance writer and youth hockey volunteer in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.