The Americans are coming

By Simon Richard

Almost quietly, USA won the U17 Four Nations Tournament last week in<br />Magnitodorsk, Russia

Rallying from a 3-1 deficit
to top Canada 4-3 in January in Helsinki, Finland, Team USA not only gave the
country its first-ever World Junior Championship gold medal, it also confirmed
that USA Hockey has now set up a successful program to produce great hockey


That victory in Finland was
just the pinnacle of many other remarkable performances lately by young USA
national teams.


Junior teams shine


The U.S. Under-18 team
captured the IIHF World Championship gold medal in April 2002 in Slovakia. Last
year, Team USA finished fourth at the same event in Yaroslav, Russia. More
recently, in November 2003, Team USA got the second place at the U-18 Four
Nations Tournament in Hutwill, Switzerland.


The U.S. U-17 National squad
also had a lot of success. It won the Four Nations Tournament in November 2003
in Magnitodorsk, Russia. A year earlier, the U.S. U-17 also won the 2002 World
Hockey Challenge in Manitoba and later claimed the gold at the Four Nations Cup
in Ann Arbor in December 2002.


The 2004 gold medal was only
the fourth-ever medal earned by Team USA over its 28 appearances at the WJC.
Before winning gold in 2002, the U.S. U18 team only managed to rank 7th,
8th and 6th from 1999 to 2001.  


Players emerge


At the 2003 NHL Entry Draft,
a record of eight Americans were selected in the first
round: Ryan Suter (7th , Nashville Predators), Hugh
(12th , New York Rangers), Dustin Brown
(13th , Los Angeles Kings), Zach Parise (17th,
New Jersey Devils), Mark Stuart (21st, Boston
Bruins), Ryan Kesler (23rd, Vancouver Canucks), Bryan
( 26th, Los Angeles Kings) and Patrick Eaves (29th,
Ottawa Senators).


A total
of 16 Americans were selected during the first two rounds in June 2003,
compared to 12 in 2002, eight in 2001 and nine in 2000. There won’t be as many
U.S. players selected in the 2004 NHL first round Entry Draft according to
projections, but still some will leave their mark.


The best goalie of the 2004
WJC, Al Montoya, was the Central Scouting Bureau Mid-Term Rankings’ top
rated goaltender in North America. Center Robbie Schremp, of the OHL
London Knights, is also a highly touted prospect for 2004. The International
Services Scouting ranks him third overall, just behind the Russians Ovechkin
and Malkin. Right winger and former Shattuck-St.Mary’s prep school Drew
was ranked ninth in NA by the CSB mid-term rankings and 10th
overall by ISS. Finally, A.J. Thelen, another former product of the now
famous prep school from Faribault, Mi., currently with Michigan State, could
also leave in the first round next June as he was ranked 16th in NA
by the CSB.   


The National Team Development Program


There may be several factors
explaining the success of U.S. teams on international scene and the emergence
of more U.S. talented players, but it seems that the NTDP launched in 1996 by
USA Hockey should deserve some praise for those successes. Since the NTDP was
put in place, providing an on and off-ice training environment for the premier
ice hockey players under 18 years of age in the U.S., the results are


half of the players who won gold in Finland last January come have passed
through the program. Four of the eight players selected in the 2003 first round
of NHL Draft Entry came from the NTDP. Many that will be selected by NHL teams
next June will have come from it as well.


USA Under-20 coach Mike Eaves recognized that NTDP as a huge reason why U.S.
junior teams had success on international scene after his team beat the
Canadians in Helsinki.


The potential is there


According to a 2002 IIHF survey, there
are 360,507 registered juvenile hockey players in U.S. and 2,500 indoor rinks.
These numbers are close to the Canadian ones and they are about ten times
higher than the best ones from European countries. For example, Russia has only
35,943 juvenile players and 101 indoor rinks.


Should the U.S. be serious
about developing the better hockey players of the world, they have all the
tools to succeed.


Given this foundation, we can
expect that the recent trend for the national U.S. teams to win international
titles on ice will carry on. We can also expect that superstars like Chelios,
Housley, Lafontaine, Leetch, Modano and Richter, will have good company in the
future among Americans who succeed in the NHL.