Documenting American progress

By Simon Richard

There are 238 players named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Of that group, a mere eight are Americans. This statistic reflects the fact that very few of the superstars who have played so far in the NHL were American. This is quite surprising considering that hundreds of Americans have played in the NHL since the 1920’s.

"I certainly think that it will change, " commented Jim Johannson the USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations to Hockey’s Future in Lake Placid.  "In all respect to the ones that named the inductees, I think that some deserving players should be in now. Also, a guy like Chris Chelios keeps playing so he can’t be up for that, " added Johannson, smiling.
Johannson is truly convinced this trend will change in the near future because USA Hockey has put in place a structure and a program, the NTDP, that contributes to identify and develop better hockey players.

U-18 and U-20 teams’ and players’ success

Since the US NTDP has been put in place in 1996, America has had a lot of success with its young national teams, especially the U-18 team.  In the last six events, the U.S. U-18 men won three gold medals and twice the team came back with the silver.
The U.S. men’s U-20 team also had success in the World Junior Championship lately, which was not the case in the 1970’s, 1980’s and the 1990’s. Of the 23 WJC’s held during that period, 17 times the U.S. team poorly performed, ranking between the fifth and the ninth position. Things have changed lately. The U.S. U-20 won its first gold medal in 2004 and since that gold, USA played in the WJC bronze medal game the last three years, losing in overtime in 2005 and winning it in 2007 in Sweden.

Over the last few years, the players of the U.S. U-18 and U-20 teams were also individually often rewarded. In 2004, Zach Parise (NJ) won the MVP award of the U-20 and was also chosen as the best forward of the event while his teammate Al Montoya (NYR) was designed as the best goaltender. In 2006, Jack Johnson (LA) was selected the best defenseman of the event , as was Erik Johnson (STL) in 2007.

Jamie McBain (CAR) deserved the title of the best defenseman of the U-18 IIHF championship in 2006, his teammate  Bill Sweatt (CHI) got the same award as a forward.  At the 2007 U-18 IIHF championship in Finland, USA players collected each of the three IIHF Directorate Awards – Josh Unice (CHI) for the best goaltender, Kevin Shattenkirk (COL) for the best defenseman and James vanRiemsdyk (PHI) for the best forward. vanRiemsdyk was also named the MVP of the tournament.

Success at the NHL Entry Draft

In June 2007, Pat Kane (CHI) became the sixth American-born player ever to be taken first overall in the 45-year history of the NHL Entry Draft. Adding Rick DiPietro in 2000 (NYI) and Erik Johnson (STL) in 2006, that means that Kane was the third American taken at the first position in the last eight years. All three players are NTDP products.

Overall, 17 players selected in the 2007 NHL draft have ties to the program. In the nine years NTDP players have been eligible for the draft, 141 players have been selected.

The selection of Kane, a native of Buffalo, made history as it was the first time ever an American-born player was the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years.

Johannson, a two-time Olympian himself, was asked if the NTDP had been a factor in the success of DiPietro, Johnson and Kane. "I think it was the primary reason," said Johannson. "They have certainly a wonderful talent, but I think because of what they get in that two years there [in Ann Arbor], it puts them much further ahead of the curve in that point of their career. I think they are just better because of the program, especially physically as we emphasize so much the first year the off-ice training, it really builds the base for them.

"The program helped make them more complete hockey players. But don’t get me wrong," insisted Johannson, "they are really really talented players."

With vanRiemsdyk taken second by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2007 NHL draft, it was also the first time ever that two American-born players were chosen with the first two picks.

A new record was also set in June 2007 as 29.9 percent of all the players selected were born in the USA. The total of 21 U.S.-born players taken in the first two rounds was also a new mark.

For a second year in a row, there were 10 Americans selected in the first round of the draft in June.

"It is definitively progressing, " commented Johannson. "At many of the levels, we have more success, especially at the U-18 and at the U-20. We have also more and more young players making the U.S. Senior Team, which is also an indication that our program gives dividends.”

So far, the USA has participated to 71 IIHF senior championships, but they have yet to win a gold medal in such an event . In 21 Olympics, twice they won the gold medal. The kids who performed lately in the young U.S. National teams will soon contribute to change that trend in the senior team.

Considering the individual success of the U.S. players, we can assume that hall of famers Pat Lafontaine and Joe Mullen will have a lot of company soon and later.  

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.