U.S. developing players the right way

The hidden intrigue in Sunday’s United States-Canada matchup at Canada Hockey Place is an inconvenient truth to our neighbors from the north.

Uncle Sam is coming.

It may not be here and it may not even be four years from now in Sochi, but the Americans are about to take the heart and soul of the Maple Leaf from right out under the Canadians.

There is this theory that once the U.S. dedicated the proper resources and organization to soccer, the Red, White and Blue would slowly establish itself as a world power. The television ratings for the 2006 World Cup, television deals for English Premier League soccer and the number of youth soccer players stateside suggests that transition is already well underway.

And the same thing is happening in hockey, Canada’s athletic lifeblood, with some very promising early returns.

We’re not talking about the fact the Americans have kept the Stanley Cup off of Canadian soil since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens became the last NHL team from the Great White North to capture the sport’s holy grail. We’re talking about the five (count em’ five) international champions the U.S. already have: Senior Women, Junior Men, Under-18 Men, Under-18 Women and the Under-17 Men.

Forget about the Russians, Uncle Sam is coming, Canada, a country so big, so vast in resources that it will take the sport on an international level and place it on its collective knees.

The USA Hockey National Team Development Program, founded in 1997 has started to produce the league’s best players by having them play together from earlier and earlier ages. In the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, six first-round picks, including top overall selection and Team USA member Erik Johnson, were members of the NTDP. In 2007, three NTDP members were selected in the first round.

"This is all part of the vision of USA Hockey going back a few years, putting the program together in Ann Arbor, committing to elite development rather than just leaving players spread all over and trying to be the best they can," said Brian Burke, general manager of the U.S. Men’s Olympic team and the Maple Leafs. "We were getting guys who were the best player in a group of ‘B’ players and now we are getting all the ‘A’ players together and I think it’s the best decision that USA Hockey ever made."

And the players are responding, placing their stars and stripes roots on par with their professional loyalties.

Jack Johnson became the first NHL player to march in an Opening Ceremony last Friday Night, chartering his own plane from Los Angeles after the Kings 3-2 loss, arriving in the Bellingham, Washington. Then he hired a driver for the hour-long drive to Vancouver, which included the border crossing.

"I just had to be here," Johnson said. "I made the decision as soon as I got the call and realized it was logistically possible."

Johnson has been a part of the U.S. development program since 2003-04, leading defensemen in points with 36. He then moved up to the Under-18 level, junior and now to the Olympic level.

"We have a good core group of guys I feel like I grew up with," Johnson said. "Guys I played with and moved up on those teams with."

And it isn’t just on the men’s side. The U.S. has long been ahead of its international counterparts when it comes to developing female athletes after the inception of Title IX in 1972. And it’s no coincidence then that the Fins and the Swedes, who beat the Americans in a semifinal in Torino, have gotten better as a result of watching players leave home to play collegiately in the U.S.

There’s Kim Martin, the Swedish goaltender, who has suited up for her country at every major international tournament since 2001 as a 15-year-old. Now, the University of Minnesota-Duluth product is joined in this tournament by her Finnish teammate, Saara Tuominen, both players taking a year off school to do so.

And the Canadians, who have blown out teams with the greatest of ease, are migrating south as well, like the club’s leading scorer Meghan Agosta, who with her eighth goal tied Danielle Goyette as the all-time leading scorer in a single Olympic tournament, before the semifinal round got underway.

Agosta’s Mercyhurst squad was the national runner up in 2008-09, losing to U.S. Head Coach Mark Johnson’s Wisconsin club in the NCAA title game, a Badger club that boasts five members of Team USA, including 2009 National Player of the Year Jessie Vetter.

"They’re two different hockey clubs, but I love them both," Agosta said. "When I have to take off to play for Canada, I’m always excited to get back to Mercyhurst, but there’s no feeling quite like representing your country."

The American men return just three Olympic veterans on their 23-man roster, but the club has played a combined 536 games in a U.S. uniform coming into the games. Ryan Suter (56), Phil Kessel (47), Dustin Brown (46), Chris Drury (46) and Johnson, (42) lead the club.

And two of those three veterans couldn’t be more impressed with the progress.

"USA Hockey has done a great job of looking forward into the future and realizing what they need to do to be successful," Brian Rafalski said. "They’ve been patient and it’s paying off dividends"

"To see USA Hockey evolve with these first round picks, all of these all-stars, all of these first class players, has been amazing," Chris Drury said. "To be on a team with them and to contribute any way I can is rewarding."