by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Tonight, I am a proud fan of American hockey.
Tonight, I am a proud fan of college hockey.
I don't believe in moral victories in sports. Usually, even if an underdog favorite team of mine falls just short of something, I find no solace in "boy, they came so close."
But as I sit here tonight, I am as proud of the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team as I was of the 1996 team that defeated Canada in the World Cup; and as of the U.S. World Junior team, which defeated Canada on its soil earlier this year.
Those aren't "loser's words." Those aren't excuses. That is just the emotion I felt in the immediate aftermath of a tremendous hockey game. A devastating, to be sure, 3-2 overtime loss in the gold medal final to Canada. But one that concluded a tournament where hockey won, U.S. hockey won, and college hockey won — in every other way but the final score.
I didn't think this team could medal, let alone come so close to gold. The Canadians, Russians, Swedes, Finns and Czechs were all supposed to have more firepower than this raw, untested bunch of 23 Americans. Then again, that's why I hate making predictions.
But I knew this team had mettle, had strong, smart two-way players, and it had Ryan Miller. We'd seen what these guys could do. We've seen the American system working well. We knew there was an "it" factor in there, even if barely any of this bunch could've cracked the Canadian squad.
American hockey may get noses thumbed at it by those North of the border, but college hockey often gets it even worse. So to see a new generation of American players, many of whom honed their skills in OUR game — the U.S. college game — excel on that level, exceed expectations, and show guts, skill and tenacity under that microscope — was a site to behold.
NHL fans discovered many of these players well after you and I did, as we watched these guys flourish in our college game. Behold:
- Ryan Miller, the 2001 Hobey Baker Award winner. His family is synonymous with hockey at Michigan State. He put up obscene numbers for the Spartans. He can now make the claim as the No. 1 goaltender in the world.
- Brian Rafalski. It's been a while since he toiled four years for Wisconsin. The elder statesman, he already has a few Stanley Cups, and had more goals in the Olympics than he's had all season for Detroit.
- Ryan Suter. A No. 7 overall pick, one year at Wisconsin, he plays an incredibly steady and efficient game for Nashville, and gets no pub. That will now change. Suter played a ridiculous 32 minutes in the gold-medal game, nine more minutes than any player on Canada (Chris Pronger played 23).
- Erik Johnson, Brooks Orpik, Jack Johnson — big-time players for Minnesota, Boston College and Michigan, respectively — all first-round NHL Draft picks. Orpik won a Stanley Cup last year to go with his national championship, and needed no more recognition. Johnson made headlines earlier this season for taking umbrage with his own NHL general manager for disparaging Michigan coach Red Berenson. For that alone, he deserved praise from college hockey fans already. But he came up with a big tournament to boot.
- Zach Parise was named to our NCAA All-Decade team earlier this year. I was at the 2003 draft when he slipped more than halfway through the first round. To us college hockey folk, we couldn't believe it. We'd seen this guy light up the WCHA, and couldn't believe NHL general managers were letting those age-old biases get in the way again. You pretty much had to laugh when it was none other than former Providence coach Lou Lamoriello — the man for whom the Hockey East championship trophy is named — traded up to get him. There's a reason Lamoriello has won three Stanley Cups, and you could almost hear him cackling in delight at his good fortune. Parise has become a 40-goal scorer in the NHL, and his goal in the closing seconds of regulation tonight was special, despite the final outcome.
- Chris Drury, who, with Miller, is the other Hobey Baker Award winner, for BU in 1998. He went on to become one of the best clutch and two-way players in the NHL. People had thought his time had passed and he shouldn't have been picked for the team, but the U.S. needed his leadership, his heart, and his smarts. What a college player. He could've won the Hobey in 1997, though Michigan's Brendan Morrison was a plenty worthy winner as well. That Hobey Baker finalist class may be the best ever in college hockey history. It also included Martin St. Louis, 38-goal scorer Todd White, Jason Blake, Randy Robitaille and John Madden.
- David Backes, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Malone, Paul Stastny — all products of the WCHA. Particularly Backes and Pavelski used this tournament to really "arrive."
- Ryan Kesler, also "arrived" in a sense in this tournament, though he's been playing strong two-way hockey for the Vancouver Canucks for a while now. His overall skills were on display, though, for the world to see here. For one season, 2002-03, Kesler was part of a group at Ohio State that featured three First-Round NHL Draft Picks up the middle — including R.J. Umberger and Dave Steckel. Most, if not all, NHL teams do not have that.
We all know that 1980 was a watershed moment. That was followed by 1996's World Cup win over Canada, the first time the United States' best defeated Canada's best in a major tournament, and we did in Montreal. The 1996 group was a direct descendent of the 1980 bunch, the players in that game largely in their formative youth years when the 1980 gold was won.
The 1996 group made us enormously proud at the time. College hockey has flourished more than ever since then.
Is this another watershed moment? Americans don't usually like "second-best," but then again, it also loves underdogs. And maybe that's why this team took hold in this country this year, moreso than the 2002 team did in Salt Lake City, a team of basically the same group as 1996, which also won silver. To wit: television ratings were 48 pecent higher in the U.S. for this game than the 2002 gold medal game.
Hopefully, college hockey continues to earn respect North of the border. Then again, there's something to be said for being under-appreciated. The sense of pride when we "show 'em" would not feel the same were it any other way.
Let's keep surprising them.