In 1980, U.S. hockey coach Herb Brooks overlooked some top-level college talent and built his "Miracle on Ice" team around players who hailed mainly from just two areas — Minnesota and Boston — figuring they’d jell better into a team that could trump talent.
Thirty years later, something similar is going on at the Vancouver Olympics. Though the U.S. men’s hockey team is many giant steps away from a gold medal, it has been built on a similar philosophy. Players have been chosen for their chemistry, with many big names left behind.
The team is so young (the 2002 and 2006 Olympic teams were five years older, on average) that its players sometimes seem like earnest high schoolers attending Model United Nations. "It’s definitely a young group, but hopefully that brings some enthusiasm," general manager Brian Burke says. "Sometimes when you are young, you don’t know any better than to go all out."
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That might be more than wishful thinking. As the team prepares for one of the Olympics’ high points — the U.S.-Canada match on Sunday — it has already won the two games it had to, beating Switzerland, 3-1, on Tuesday and stomping Norway, 6-1, Thursday. And it’s doing so in an entertaining and risk-taking style with a bit of the "truculence" Burke says he wants from his players.
"These big stars on the other teams are going to get their chances, but we’re not sitting back and waiting for them," 23-year-old defenseman Jack Johnson says. "We’re playing an aggressive, in-your-face style. We are not sitting back."
A key reason for these early successes is the team is built around a nucleus of young players forged by USA Hockey. In 1996, the amateur hockey association started a national team-development program that brings talented youngsters from around the country to spend their junior and senior years of high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. There, they live with local families and go to high school, but they mainly play hockey against the nation’s top competition under the guidance of strength and conditioning coaches. The program costs $2.8 million a year.
The focus on elite players is a bit unusual for a major sport in the U.S. — there’s nothing similar in basketball, baseball or football — but the results have been stunning. Earlier this year, the U.S. junior team beat the Canadians in Canada, prompting gnashing of teeth north of the border.
"It’s cool that we’re playing together again," says Patrick Kane, a 21-year-old graduate of the development program whom the Chicago Blackhawks drafted with the overall No. 1 pick in 2007 — only one of six U.S.-born players to be drafted in the top slot. "I know some of the guys real well, and it’s awesome we’re back."
One of his classmates is Erik Johnson, another 21-year-old Ann Arbor graduate who also was chosen with the overall No. 1 pick the year before by the St. Louis Blues. "Me and Patrick have lots of good chemistry — more than that, we’re friends. We know what the other is doing."
The two have had several successes together, such as a bronze medal at the 2007 international under-20 championships. These shared successes were a key reason they were picked for the team, Burke says. "There’s an X-factor when you evaluate players," he says. "To me, the pedigree of a player is not just what he accomplished, but what he helped his teammates accomplish."
This team, whose average age is just under 27, is a departure from the 2006 team, which finished eighth, and the 2002 team that won silver. They were stocked with what is arguably the greatest generation of U.S. hockey players, Hall of Famers or locks for the hall such as Mike Modano, Mike Richter and Brian Leetch.
Burke says it was "agonizing" to turn the page and leave some stars from that group behind. Notably absent this year is Bill Guerin, who at 39 is still a capable scorer, and Modano, also 39, who’s the all-time goal and points-scoring leader among U.S.-born players. The sole representative from that era is Brian Rafalski, a 37-year-old power-play specialist on defense. At 29, Brooks Orpik, who won the Stanley Cup last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, says he feels like an old-timer.
"You shouldn’t undervalue experience, but in a short tournament maybe it doesn’t matter," he says. "The young guys won’t know what’s up before it’s over."
For 22-year-old Bobby Ryan, a former overall No. 2 draft pick, the lack of older players is just fine. "You’re not with a lot of veteran guys that you have to tiptoe around," Ryan says. "You’re comfortable with each other. It absolutely helps cohesion."
Another reason for the togetherness might be Burke’s adherence to his NHL team-building playbook. That means a limited number of elite players — mostly the seven youngsters from the Ann Arbor program — and a bunch of raw-boned role players: grinders, defensive specialists and muckers, in other words, the gritty players who have populated Burke’s teams in Vancouver, Anaheim (where he won a Stanley Cup) and now Toronto. The result is clean lines of responsibility and no sulking stars who are asked to play a defensive role.
Scott Gomez, a 30-year-old center who won two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils and is an accomplished faceoff man and penalty killer, also was left off the U.S. team. He might have been welcome on a veteran team like Canada, where he would’ve been asked to take a step down and anchor the third or fourth line. To prevent any griping, Burke picked 25-year-old Joe Pavelski for a similar role.
Jim Johannson, one of Burke’s lieutenants, says these are good problems to have. In years past, the number of talented U.S. hockey players was so limited that players were chosen because they could compete — even if the team didn’t need their skill set. The development program has "given us so much more depth," he says.
All of this will be on display Sunday, when the U.S. takes on Canada, whose players aren’t unknown to the kids from Ann Arbor. Paul Stastny, a 24-year-old with the Colorado Avalanche, says: "There’s not a lot of love there."