Two heartbreaking losses in the medal round at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games led to a lot of hand wringing among the U.S. Men’s Team’s management and set off a firestorm among fans on social media.
One thing is clear, however, there is a new gold standard whenever a U.S. National Team takes the ice at an international tournament. Long gone are the days of miracles, surprises and satisfaction over respectable finishes on the international arena.
“It’s not a miracle for us winning a gold medal,” U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma said in response to another question tying this year’s team to the “Miracle on Ice” squad from 1980.
While expectations have increased, so has the caliber of player climbing through the USA Hockey development ladder.
“Bottom line, I believe at every level we play, in all men’s and women’s age levels and championships, we have a team that we feel is capable of winning,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of Hockey Operations.
The team that battled the likes of Russia and Canada in Sochi featured seven players younger than 25, and nine more who have yet to reach their 30th birthday. The young team came within one goal of reaching the gold-medal game for the second consecutive Olympics, which proves that youth no longer equals inexperience at these events.
The youngest player to suit up for the U.S. in Sochi, defenseman Justin Faulk, 21, is far from an international hockey rookie, as would have been the case in generations past. Faulk has logged 33 games in a U.S. sweater in five international tournaments, winning two bronze medals and a gold.
Cam Fowler, another young but immensely talented defenseman, was asked where the thrilling shootout victory over Russia ranked in his international hockey career.
“It’s certainly up there,” said Fowler, who won a gold medal along with fellow Olympians Jon Carlson and Derek Stepan at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship.
That a 23-year-old player is not star struck by one of the most exciting games in Olympic history speaks volumes.
Two developments in the American hockey system are fueling this expansion of talent and gold-medal expectations. The first was the creation of the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., which was established in 1998.
Men’s Under-18 National Teams composed largely of NTDP players have medaled in every IIHF Men’s Under-18 World Championship since 2004, winning gold six times.
“I think they’ve done an outstanding job and the end results speak for themselves,” Johannson said. “Obviously we’ve seen great results at a lot of levels, [including] the Under 18, the Under 20 and even past Olympic teams.”
Nine members of the U.S. Olympic Team played at the NTDP, including Phil Kessel, who posted eight points and was named the tournament’s top forward in Sochi.
“Seeing nine players on this team that came from the core of that program speaks volumes about the NTDP, number one, but secondly raises the bar across all of USA Hockey,” Johannson said.
The success with the NTDP helped lead to a change in fortune at the World Junior Championships as well.
With only two bronze medals and a silver medal in the first 29 years of the tournament’s existence, the 2004 U.S. National Junior Team broke through to win the country’s first gold medal. On that roster were 15 players from the NTDP, including 2014 Olympians Ryan Suter and Ryan Kesler.
“I didn’t really know about international hockey before I went to Ann Arbor. Going there really opened my eyes to the world of hockey,” Suter said.
In recent years the U.S. has won two more gold medals and a bronze. While the rosters aren’t exclusively composed of NTDP alumni, the players who come from the program enter the World Junior Championship as seasoned international players at, in some cases, only 17 years old.
“Just from playing in those certain tournaments you feel like you’ve been here before, whether it’s being overseas or being put through these situations,” said Patrick Kane, who credits the NTDP for igniting his launch to superstardom.
“It’s a great program to get yourself jumpstarted for situations like [the Olympics], and as a hockey player too.”
Johannson said the medal haul in tournaments that these players have competed in are both a harbinger of future results as well as a way to instill the expectation of success at a young age.
“The hope and belief is that success breeds success and also carries into the room and on the ice,” he said.
He points to the 1984 birth year as breaking through with winning Under-18 and Under-20 gold medals. Those players grew up with the experience of winning at the international level, so when the chance to make another national team comes along, they are ready and eager to win a gold medal.
“We have confident players at all levels that are trained and play at a level to win championships,” Johannson said. “Making the teams at all of these levels is now the first challenge for all USA players.”
Always looking toward the future, Johannson said that while the U.S. system has reached a point of gold-medal expectations, the next phase for American hockey is to consistently achieve those goals.
Cameron Eickmeyer is the managing editor of USAHockey.com.
Photos By Jeff Cable