PLYMOUTH, Mich. — USA Hockey women’s star Hilary Knight was careful not to speak for the men.
“It’s a different selection process,” she explained.
But when asked what benefit the women get in playing in the World Championships together in preparation for the 2018 Olympics, she reeled off the positives. They’re figuring out what works and doesn’t work. Every decision they make on a daily basis is with the Olympics in mind. Mostly, they’re continuing to form a tight bond that was tested and passed with flying colors during their recent negotiation with USA Hockey.
“I think whenever you can have the best players on the ice together representing your country on the world’s stage, it’s probably the best advantage you’re going to have,” Knight said. “It creates a different kind of chemistry and a bond.”
Huh. Sounds like a very sound strategy.
Which brings us to the men’s World Championships in Paris.
When there was speculation that the American men might boycott the 2017 Worlds in support of the women, the punchline passed around hockey was that everyone thought they’d all been boycotting for years.
Like the hockey fans in this country, the best American men hockey players have little to no regard for the World Championships. It’s an easy decline year after year for the best American players, leaving it up to college kids to represent the country. Credit veterans like Matt Hendricks, Nick Foligno and Brock Nelson who do their part, but the American stars in this country are a consistent no-show.
In 2002, Hockey Canada GM Lanny McDonald told colleague Pierre LeBrun that 60 NHL players turned down Canada’s request to play in the Worlds. Canada was upset by Slovakia in the quarter-finals and goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere called out his fellow countrymen at home.
Hockey Canada was embarrassed.
“I hope they do feel guilty,” Giguere said at the time. “This tournament gives players an opportunity to get better.”
Since then, you’ve seen a change.
In recent years, Canadian players have showed up in a big way for the Worlds, and the payoff has been clear in all international competition.
Team USA needs that right now. They’re coming off an embarrassment in the World Cup. They’re coming off a disappointing Olympic performance in Sochi. We’re now relying on teenagers to represent our country with pride in the World Juniors, while the best players in the world ignore invites for play at the highest level.
Team Canada has won back-to-back gold in the World Championships. When Sidney Crosby had a chance to play in the 2015 Worlds after the Penguins lost early in the playoffs, his agent Pat Brisson was on the phone with then-Canada GM Jim Nill immediately to say he was coming to the Czech Republic to represent his country. That team already had Brent Burns, Aaron Ekblad, Matt Duchene, Claude Giroux, Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Ryan O’Reilly. The best available Canadians. What a concept.
Clearly, the Canadians have decided this is an important event. They’ve won back-to-back golds in the Worlds. They’ve also won back-to-back golds in the Olympics. You’d understand if the Canadians are starting to feel like they can’t lose in international competition at the highest levels.
And yet, nobody seems to give a flip on the Team USA side.
They’ve won two bronze medals in the Worlds in the last four years, which is actually an accomplishment considering the rosters being sent over.
It’s far from good enough. Since when do we get excited about two bronze medals in four years in this country?
So one of two things is happening here: One, USA Hockey believes that these results at the high-level international competition are just fine. Or two, they don’t care enough to change the approach.
Neither one is acceptable.
Something needs to change. USA Hockey uses a management group to recruit players and form the roster. Maybe it’s time to follow Hockey Canada’s lead and rotate an NHL GM or NHL assistant GM to be in charge. It adds more accountability.
This year, Ron Hextall is the leading candidate to build Team Canada. He’s not an easy guy to say no to when he calls. It’s become too easy for American players to turn down Jim Johannson and the USA Hockey crew.
It’s time for Team USA to have its 2002 moment. Call out the players if they turn down the invitation. Don’t give anyone a free pass. It’s in Paris! Turn it in to a work vacation. Trust me, the Canadian players have had no issues mixing in a good time while also winning games.
Just looking at likely non-playoff teams, there could be a Team USA Worlds roster consisting of Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop, Jimmy Howard, Dylan Larkin, Jack Eichel, Keith Yandle, Shayne Gostisbehere, Vincent Trocheck, Kyle Palmieri and Kyle Okposo.
To steal Mike Commodore‘s bit — fellas, pack your stuff.
That’s just to get started.
The pool expands considerably depending on who makes the playoffs or who gets knocked out early. Re-enforcements could include Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, Max Pacioretty, Cam Atkinson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan Kesler, Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Zach Werenski, Seth Jones and many, many others.
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby can get on the first plane to Europe after their Stanley Cup playoffs are over. Why can’t more Americans?
Maybe if that U.S. team showed up in the World Championships, the fans in this country would pay attention. Maybe it might translate into more Olympic success.
It’s a long tournament. It’s been a long season. The World Cup made it even longer. Players are banged up. There are a lot of excuses not to play.
I’m sure we’ll hear them.
They’re not good enough. We’ve got to stop acting like the occasional World Championship bronze is an accomplishment. We’ve got to stop acting like an orientation camp and a couple pre-Olympic practices are enough to build a gold-winning team, to form an Olympic bond. We’ve got to show just a little more pride in the hockey in this country on the men’s side.
If USA Hockey truly cares about ending its Olympic gold drought, it can start by caring as much about this tournament. This year.