The headlines on the sports pages around this part of the world are about the disastrous day for North American hockey at the Olympics yesterday. The Belleville News-Democrat headline is North American Nightmare. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch didn't make as big a deal of it with Underachieving North Americans Ousted. Papers in most of the NHL markets have similar banners.
Here in the US, we're not happy with the Finn win over Team USA. In Canada, there are reports of anguished citizens threatening to jump off the nearest building after Team Canada's loss to Russia that took them out of medal contention. Of course, they live and die with their hockey north of the border. The bulk of the population in the US couldn't name more than two players on our team.
Team USA General Manager Don Waddell (GM of the Atlanta Thrashers) said after yesterday's loss to the Finns...."We're out of the tournament, but it's not like we have to blow it up and start over". I would tend to disagree. So, I have a few humble suggestions for the braintrust at USA Hockey for the 2010 games in Vancouver.
Let the kids play! The last time we had a team that we really got excited about was the 1980 "Miracle" team. Of course, that was a bunch of young guys that put their heart and soul into the games...and therefore overachieved to win the gold. When we send a bunch of grizzled pros...(i.e. 43-year-old team captain Chris Chelios) A. we know what to expect from them and usually get it. B. They know what to expect from themselves, and usually give it. C. They have a big salary in the NHL to come back to, no matter what they do at the Olympics. D. They are usually physically beat up from the regular NHL season by the time the Olympics roll around in February. E. We have older, slower, under-inspired players in a tournament...and on a larger ice surface... that puts a premium on speed, skill, and enthusiasm. Duh!
After yesterday's loss, Mike Modano...one of our grizzled veterans...seemed to care more about berating the management of the team, and the way the players were treated, than being concerned that the players might have embarassed themselves and let down the country's hockey fans. He said USA Hockey didn't arrange for player travel, hotels and other amenties that pro athletes are accustomed to having. Was he going to Italy to play hockey...or take a vacation with his family? He said it's time for a change in the management of the US effort. Maybe he's right...but that should include a hard look at who's putting on the USA sweater too.
Let the other countries send their old NHL guys. We should suit up a team of the best American college players and minor league kids trying to make a name for themselves. Maybe two or three of the players could be first or second-year NHL guys who still have some youthful enthusiam. At least they might consider representing the US a "true honor" and likely wouldn't be jaded or blaze' about it from having been there before.
I don't know about you, but I could get excited about seeing the "underdog Americans" playing in the Olympics. I actually think it would be good for the TV ratings too. We could expect inspired play. And, we would be putting a team on the ice in the tradition of the greatest moment in US hockey of all time. Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, and the rest of the "miracle" team could be proud. We might even institute an age limit...like noone over 25. That way the GM of the US team would have a legitimate reason for telling the "old guys" to stay home.
Appoint a permanent coach....someone cut from the same mold as the late Herb Brooks. I'm sure you could find a respected college or pro coach to take on that job. That way, you would have someone who is concentrating on the Olympic tournament from early in the college and pro hockey season to evaluate players and keep tabs on a likely roster. The guy would have to be a motivator and a disciplinarian, much like Brooks. Now, we use an NHL coach who jumps into it last minute...and just knows the players from what he's seen on occasion in NHL games.
Our coach should get these guys together for a couple of weeks of practice during the summer and early fall so they can get to know one another as people and teammates. Then they can go back to their college and/or pro teams until a couple of weeks before the Olympics when they could have some practice/exhibition games that would help them gel as a team.
One other thing about having a US team like this....winning would be so sweeeeet! (remember '80). Lower expectations means higher satisfaction. And if we don't win? Hey, we're not winning the way it is.