American men’s hockey team will flop … even more | VailDaily.com
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American men’s hockey team will flop … even more

Ian Cropp

Apparently the U.S. hockey team missed its wake up call in the Olympic Village Wednesday morning.

In what was the most pitiful display of American professional hockey since last season’s lockout, the United States, replete with NHL players, lost to Latvia and its two NHLers on Wednesday, 3-3.

I don’t care what the standings say, this is game was a loss for the red white and booo! (by the end of the game, I was cheering for Latvia).

Before I continue to lambaste the U.S. men’s Pee-Wee hockey team, let me first congratulate Latvia on a phenomenal win. Artrus Irbe had 39 saves, carrying his team, which happens to be ranked 10 out of 12 in the Olympic pool. His nation of 2.3 million must be proud.

Meanwhile, any American who saw the game should be in disgust. As apoplectic as I was after the game, I must admit that I wasn’t surprised.

It was widely believed coming into these Games that the Americans wouldn’t medal. For someone who grew up loving the sport, I want nothing more than to see the team standing on the top step of the podium. While my heart says they’ll recover from the first-game jitters, my head says the U.S. will likely end up struggling to face Slovakia or Finland for fifth place.

After a silver in 2002, it’s hard to believe the U.S. squad isn’t favored to medal.

Roster check

A quick look at the American roster brings to light the plight of the American team.

The old-guard American players like Jeremy Roenick, Brian Leetch, John LeClair, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull, Phil Housley and Mike Richter (more on goaltending later) are out.

And while the roster is replete with young talent, the American stars don’t match up with other NHL players. Only two of the American forwards are in the top 30 for scoring (Brian Ralston is 16th and Brian Gionta is 25th). The two defensemen in the top 25 for plus/minus (Derian Hatcher 13th and Chris Chelios 22nd) will have a difficult time playing on an Olympic sheet. Already, Chelios has shown his 44-year-old legs can’t follow a golden rule of defense ” if, and when you pinch in from the point, either take the puck of the body. On Latvia’s go-ahead goal, Chelios set up a two-on-one for Latvia with terrible pinch.

Hatcher’s 6-foot-6 frame isn’t suited for an Olympic-sized rink, and Bret Hedican won’t be able to keep up with the speedy Russian, Swedish or Slovakian forwards. Offensive-minded defensemen like Slovakia’s Lubomir Visnovsky, Russia’s Sergei Gonchar and the Czech Republic’s Tomas Kaberle are more valuable than a stay-at-home defmensman.

The American forwards are fast, and can score goals. They just aren’t as good as five other teams’ forwards.

But skills and stats don’t paint the entire picture ” there are always intangibles, like experience, and heart.

While I don’t think Chris Chelios lacks the experience (this is his fourth Olympics, and he’s the oldest American hockey player to compete in the Olympics), I think he lacks the maturity to be the captain. He acted like a 3 year old at the Nagano Games, leading his team in a hotel trashing incident, so maybe now he’ll act like an 11 year old.

I don’t think the American players lack heart or patriotism, but putting on the jersey doesn’t seem carry the same honor it used to. These aren’t college kids. They are pros who have multi-million dollar contracts waiting for them after the Games.

In net

Oh, before I finish, there is the sine qua non of Olympic hockey success ” goaltending (Dominik Hasek led the Czech Republic in 1998, and Martin Brodeur did the same with Canada in 2002). When U.S. team general manager, Don Waddell (who is this guy?), got together with coach Peter Laviolette to pick this team, they chose three goalies, who at the time, seemed to be the top-three American goalies.

No longer is that the case.

There was an opportunity to make changes to the roster, which happened (Hedican replaced Aaron Miller, due to Miller’s injury), but the most dire change wasn’t made. Instead of naming Buffalo’s Ryan Miller to the team, Waddell named him to the taxi squad (which can play in the case of an injury). Since coming back from an early season thumb injury, Miller has been one of the best goalies in the league, let alone American goalies. Miller’s 2.25 goals against, and .923 save percentage are far better than John Grahame’s (2.68, .900), Rick DiPietro’s (3.38, .892) or Robert Esche’s (3.15, .892). Too bad Miller will be watching his team lose from the United States.

Today, the U.S. will beat Kazakhstan, but the road to the cross-over round will not be easy. And if the U.S. only beats one of its remaining opponents outside of Kazakhstan, (Slovakia, Sweden and Russia), it’ll be hard-pressed to make the top six.

I hope they prove me wrong. I’ll be watching these games with my fork and knife, ready to take a big bite of some crow pie.

Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14631, or icropp@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado


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