USA Hockey, World Cup 2016: Lessons Learned

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Team USA’s first World Cup of Hockey in 12 years has come to a sudden and humiliating end. The convincing loss to Canada sealed an 0-2 start to group play and eliminated the Americans from semifinal contention. The nations showing was humiliating not because they failed to beat Team Europe and Team Canada – powerhouses built out of the best hockey players in the world – but because they failed to learn, prepare, and execute as an organization.

USA Hockey lives in the shadow of the greatest hockey country in the world. I grew up a hockey player in the Midwest. I’ve travelled to play alongside our northern neighbors and have seen how differently hockey is perceived above the border. Youth hockey is a mainstay in the community and professional hockey is regularly a front-page headline. Not the case in America where the NFL is king and hockey is a niche market. For the foreseeable future, Canada will rightfully be known as the home of hockey.

That dose of reality does not change the fact that the twenty best American players can and expect to beat the twenty best Canadian players. Where USA Hockey failed was in preparation. The showing in Toronto this week indicates that the USA learned very little from the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In Sochi, the American’s lost a thrilling 1-0 game versus Canada before a poor showing in the Bronze Medal game versus Finland. In the Finland game, USA barely showed up. Zach Parise lost his status as captain as a result.

Joe Pavelski donned the ‘C’ for the Americans in Toronto at the WCOH. That decision is hard to argue. Other roster choices, however, deserve to be criticized.

Phil Kessel, coming off a Stanley Cup Championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was left at home to watch the Americans lose their opening two games. He tweeted this immediately after the defeat to Canada.

philkessel

While Phil’s message could be seen as distasteful, he has a point. He was snubbed from the Team USA roster after a stunning performance in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kessel had 22 points in 24 games and was considered a worthy candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, the NHL’s playoff MVP award.

Kessel was a controversial roster omission, but also left off the roster were Islander’s defenseman Nick Leddy and forward Kyle Okposo. Team USA reserved roster spots for Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson and David Backes instead.

The mantra that Team USA sold going into Toronto was that they would be built to defeat the Canadians with their size. Hindsight is 20/20 and it appears that Canada’s weakness is not aversion to physical play. Instead, Canada dominated the USA with their speed and skill. Who would have guessed that a roster filled with NHL captains and future Hall of Famers would take advantage of a less skilled and disciplined USA roster?

Here is what USA Hockey needs to learn: when it comes to international competition, forget the notion of role players. A bruiser cannot help you if he cannot play with the speed of his opponent. Chemistry between players is fickle, especially in short-term competitions like the Olympics or WCOH. When it comes to player selection, ignore chemistry. Take the most talented player and take the ice knowing you put your best foot forward. Let the players play confidently and with their strongest countrymen on the bench with them.

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