SANTA CRUZ, January 6, 2014 — Last week’s announcement of the U.S. men’s Olympic ice hockey team roster has created no small amount of controversy, with pundits eagerly weighing in on two principle snubs, as well as the requisite goaltending questions and second guesses. The discussion is ultimately good, raising the profile of American players and the game’s prominence in a sports culture dominated by other disciplines.
The more Americans are talking about their Olympic hockey team, the more eyes will be on the games in Sochi, Russia next month, and that is a decided win for USA hockey, regardless of which players are on the team.
Much of the outrage over the roster has to do with the omissions of Bobby Ryan and Jack Johnson. While both players have represented the U.S. in prior international competitions, the idea that they are owed a spot on this team is flawed. Ryan is having a statistically solid season thus far for the Ottawa Senators (36 points in 44 games), and the argument could be made that his ability to score is valuable enough to earn him a ticket to Sochi. But Ryan is not a highly competitive player. He shows up, does his thing, scores goals and that is it.
Of course, it is all relative, and not a knock on Bobby Ryan. Anybody who is an everyday player in the NHL is an elite player, but in a condensed tournament, against the best in the world, more intensity and grit will be required.
Jack Johnson, who was a top prospect coming out of college, never fulfilled his potential as a first round pick. He currently has 11 points in 42 games, which is respectable for a defenseman. Johnson, however, is a minus 12, which is the worst on his team. While never the fastest player in the world, he has lost a step in recent seasons. On the bigger ice surfaces, this translates to bad pinches and obstruction penalties as opponents fly past him.
The new reality facing those charged with assembling America’s international teams is that the U.S. is now a legitimate hockey powerhouse, producing elite talent at a rate it never has before. There was a time when a pair of skates and a U.S. passport was all one needed to be named to the Olympic hockey team.
There exists now a sense of entitlement among U.S. born players, particularly those who have represented their country before. Many believe they have earned some kind of lifetime pass to every international hockey tournament that comes along.
David Poile and the others who put this year’s squad together are thinking with their heads rather than their hearts. These are not easy decisions and they ought to be applauded for their progressive approach.
They have skewed the roster younger, giving up and coming players their chance to compete on the biggest international stage. It would have been easy to go with the usual suspects and roll out the same team who came up a goal short four years ago in Vancouver, but they resisted the urge.
While the ultimate judgement will be rendered after the tournament, Poile and his staff are doing the right thing by refusing to hold on to old ideas and habits. While so many hockey executives and governing bodies remain stuck in outmoded methods, it is refreshing to see USA hockey looking forward rather than clinging to the past.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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