The Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association won the Stanley Cup in 1917, becoming the first American-based team to win a prize that was previously meant only for Canadian teams. On Monday night, LA Kings captain Dustin Brown hoisted the silver chalice formerly known as the Dominion Challenge Trophy just minutes after Jonathan Quick accepted an award adorned with a giant maple leaf.
It was a clear reminder that the National Hockey League’s and Stanley Cup’s history is deeply rooted in Canada. The entire sport’s history is deeply rooted in Canada. There’s no denying it.
Though Americans have been reaching hockey’s top league for decades now, there is still something significant about an American Conn Smythe Trophy winner in and an American captain accepting the Stanley Cup itself.
When one considers neither has happened very often in the storied history of the most famous trophy in professional sports, it becomes abundantly clear just how important an occasion like Monday night really is for American hockey.
The Stanley Cup has been handed out every year but two since 1893. Before Ithaca, N.Y., native Dustin Brown lifted hockey’s ultimate prize Monday night, only once prior had an American captain done the same. Derian Hatcher of Sterling Heights, Mich., was the first American-born captain to accept the trophy from the NHL’s commissioner. That was in 1999, right near the peak of what has become known as American hockey’s Golden Age.
Players like Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Pat LaFontaine, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Hatcher, John LeClair Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck all were close to entering the downside of their brilliant careers.
After the 2002 Olympics, in which a powerhouse roster of American players took silver in Salt Lake City, it became painfully obvious that the end was near for that Golden Era.
One look at the 2006 Olympic roster gives you a pretty good indication of where USA Hockey was at at that point. Some of the relics from the Golden Age were still clinging to competitiveness, but barely. The depth players were mostly flash-in-the-pan guys that had some good years at the right time. The best Americans in the game were retiring faster than they could be replaced.
As those Golden Age players rode off into the sunset — really the only one left is Brian Rolston who came in towards the tail end — there just weren’t enough guys to pick up the torch. Until now.
The silver medal for the United States at the 2010 Olympics was a declaration not of arrival, but of what’s to come.
That lull between 2002 and 2008, where USA Hockey was clinging to memories of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and 2002 silver medal, was cause for concern. There weren’t as many players and they just weren’t at that same level as those greats from the Golden Age. Technically they still aren’t, but they’re on their way.
A Stanley Cup Final that featured two American-born captains, both from that 2010 Olympic team, helped reinforce that previous declaration: It’s happening.
It seems as though USA Hockey is entering or is close to entering a new Golden Age and this one might actually stick for a long time. Long after this generation of players are gone, too.
Dustin Brown’s 20-point performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — tied with Anze Kopitar’s 20 points for most in the playoffs — which included scoring LA’s first goal and assisting on its second in Game 6 was yet another indication. When the games mattered the absolute most, LA’s captain showed up and made an impact. He did so with toughness, determination and just enough skill to get the job done.
Then there’s Jonathan Quick. Oh, that Jonathan Quick. All he did was put together one of the greatest seasons in National Hockey League history both in the regular-season and the playoffs.
With a 16-4 record, 1.41 goals-against average and filthy .946 save percentage, Quick became the third American-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP.
He joins fellow Avon Old Farms alum Brian Leetch, who won after his 34-point output in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final with the New York Rangers and Tim Thomas, who put together a pretty strong run himself with the Bruins just last year.
Quick also has an outside chance of keeping the Vezina Trophy stateside for the fourth consecutive year as Tim Thomas (two) and Ryan Miller (one) have split the last three. Henrik Lundqvist may have something to say about that yet.
This new age of American players will always be compared to the Golden Age. Will they surpass what the great players of the 1990s were able to accomplish? Now there is another link, with Quick (and Thomas) and Brown having accomplished what Leetch and Hatcher did long ago.
Hockey may always be a game dominated by Canadians, and that’s fine. This isn’t really a competition to see which country is better at hockey, this is strictly about the development of the game in the United States. Canadians should want the game to grow in the U.S. as much as Americans should hope Canada keeps churning out guys like Sidney Crosby and Drew Doughty. It makes the game better.
People of all countries should want to see growth of the game across the world. As the game grows, so should the overall talent level.
Canada is certainly the ultimate measuring stick as they’ve set the standard for hockey supremacy. USA Hockey’s executive director Dave Ogrean shared the following with Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star:
“Canada’s excellence has set a standard for us to emulate,” said Ogrean. “Do we want to continue to enrol more and more players and get more and more kids playing the game? Of course we do. Do we want them to continue to play the game better? Of course.
“Do we want to have more success at the international level and win more and more gold medals? Of course. Nobody ever dominates completely, but we want to get to the point where not just in North America but in the rest of the world that perhaps people will be looking at the Canada-U.S. rivalry as the premier rivalry in hockey and we’re trying to get to that same perch.”
There are indications that USA Hockey is getting closer to Ogrean’s stated goal.
There were more than 511,000 hockey players in the United States in 2011-12 and there’s no signs of that growth stopping. As that player pool continues to grow, it will also get deeper in terms of talent.
There were well over 200 Americans who appeared in at least one game in the National Hockey League this season. Over the last four NHL Entry Drafts, 278 Americans have heard their names called including 81 in the first two rounds.
Meanwhile, the success of guys like Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick in the highest of high-pressure situations, not to mention the key contributions for the Kings from Alec Martinez, Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi and Trevor Lewis, is another feather in the cap of USA Hockey.
What Brown and Quick did is just a small indicator of where the U.S. is as a hockey country, but when you combine it with international success, growing numbers in the NHL and NHL Draft and the fact that there are more people playing hockey in the United States than ever before, something becomes abundantly clear.
American hockey is on the rise once again and it’s not even close to its ceiling.