2014 Olympics: Concern Over Lack of U.S. Success Overseas Overblown, Outdated

One of the ongoing narratives, partially driven by comments from Team USA’s executives themselves, is the fact that the U.S. has struggled mightily at the Olympics when playing overseas. It’s a narrative based in fact, because… well… the only two American gold medals won in the tournament came on home ice and the last two silvers were in North America.

Hockey: U.S. Men's National Team CampA sixth-place finish at 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and an eighth-place disappointment in Turin, Italy, are still recent enough for Team USA’s management team to remember so vividly. Both were crushing disappointments in the middle of what appeared to be a momentum-building time for American hockey.

Playing an Olympics on big ice overseas comes with very real concerns, but the most frequently noted concerns may be overblown. Additionally, this argument that the 2014 edition of Team USA is going to falter in Sochi because that’s what American teams have done in the Olympics before is a bit outdated.

Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal recently penned a piece on why U.S. fans should temper their expectations and why the past has Team USA’s brass thinking hard about how to build this next team. It’s a good story with plenty of solid sources offering their thoughts on the matter, but I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing.

The premise of Costa’s piece can be somewhat nutshelled with this selection:

But here’s a cold fact ahead of the Sochi Games in February: Team USA fares miserably outside North America. Not since 1972 has the U.S. won a medal in an overseas Olympics. In the 2006 Torino Games, the Americans finished eighth, unable to beat even Latvia.

In the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the U.S. tied for fifth—then gained off-the-ice ignominy when some American players vandalized their rooms at the athletes’ village, causing more than $1,000 in damage. The culprits were never identified.

This record of overseas failure leaves U.S. hockey officials pondering a question as they assemble their roster for the Sochi Games. “What do we need to change to win there?” Team USA general manager David Poile said.

Again, no disagreement here and I found a lot of what the piece had to say interesting. However, there are a few reasons comparisons of the potential 2014 outfit to those in 1998 and 2006 are inapt.

Costa is right in that those particular Olympic teams have fared miserably overseas, but a good number of the players within Team USA’s 2014 player pool have fared rather well on foreign soil.

However, for comparisons sake, let’s take a look at the two comparable teams in question.

For one, let’s just throw out for a second that the 2006 U.S. Olympic team was by and large bad. There was a lot of name recognition as USA Hockey was still leaning heavily on USA Hockey’s Golden Age of players after the gold had already tarnished. They had no choice but to continue going back to that well with guys like Chris Chelios (44 at the time), Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Mike Modano. All of those players were still serviceable, but not the version of themselves that led the U.S. to the 1996 World Cup.

In 1998, talent was not a valid excuse. Many of those players were absolutely among the best in the world. It was essentially the same team that beat Canada just two years prior at the World Cup of Hockey.

We can sit here all day and make excuses for that 1998 team, but they got embarrassed. Then furthered the humiliation by allegedly trashing their rooms in the Olympic village. They should have fared better than they did, but they were trying to win an NHL game on Olympic ice. It’s a tough thing to do.

Four years later, USA Hockey’s brass took largely the same group, but made some key changes to the roster for the 2002 team. Among them, getting a bit more mobile on defense and providing a better mix of speed and power up front. That, plus being bolstered by home ice helped lead to a silver medal in Salt Lake City.

While the way the 1998 and 2006 teams were constructed and the player pool USA Hockey had to pick from were a lot different than today’s, that isn’t the key difference between those two clubs and Team USA’s potential 2014 entry.

Those two teams were made up of players that had never once tasted success on foreign ice. Not once. No gold medals, no chance to even compete really. They’d lose to Canada, Russia (USSR), Sweden, Finland, and just get smoked at the World Juniors and World Championships. Those results would follow them to the Olympics in the pre-NHL years from 1984 to 1994. Then they still followed in 1998 and 2006.

This era of American player has had a lot of success on international ice, though. Many of the candidates for Team USA in 2014 will have had experience on an international ice surface in a foreign country and a lot of them will have experienced some level of success.

Part of that is due to a decision made by Jeff Jackson, now head coach at Notre Dame, and USA Hockey’s executives to find a way to change the way American players were being developed for international success.

The National Team Development Program was founded in 1996 when it became apparent that a lack of success at the World Juniors and other international tournaments was correlating to a lack of success in the Olympics. The U.S. was 16 years removed from the Miracle on Ice and though the World Cup of Hockey brought added optimism, the results were still remarkably poor at the majority of international events.

By housing the nation’s elite players, getting them into multiple international events and playing a challenging schedule about older, stronger opponents, the national governing body had more control over how their players were being developed and the messages being delivered.

It took several years for things to start coming together, but in 2002, a group of primarily 1984-born players took the first step toward what would be an eventual overwhleming culture change for American hockey.

In Piestany, Slovakia, on an Olympic ice surface, the U.S. National Under-18 Team won its first gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship, which was formed by the IIHF in 1999. That team, coached by current Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves, featured future building block players like Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler and Ryan Suter.

Two years later, many of the players from that same age group went on to help the U.S. win its first ever World Junior Championship in Finland.

Since then, the U.S. has won a record seven gold medals — all, but one earned overseas — at the World Under-18 Championship, including four straight from 2009-12, and three total at the World Junior Championships (two outside of North America). Success has still escaped the U.S. at the Men’s World Championship, though a bronze medal at last year’s event is quite encouraging.

When David Poile goes to build his team for the Olympics, he has players that have won on international ice before. A good portion of these players will have experienced Russia once in their hockey playing lives. They’ll have made these kinds of trips and have experienced the small margin of error short tournaments like the Olympics brings.

Through an added emphasis by USA Hockey to build teams for the World Under-18 Championship, World Juniors and even the World Championship, the organization has done a better job of grooming its players for international success.

The experience of each tournament, however long ago, may seem irrelevant and maybe it’s not going to be the difference, but it is an advantage these players have over their predecessors in 1998 and 2006

On top of the actual experience, you also have to look at the type of player the U.S. has developed. There is a more diverse skillset among American players. This is not just a meat-and-potatoes group anymore. Sure, the U.S. is still full of those guys, but that’s in addition to top end skill among  offensive players.

There is a load of speed and there is still enough of that grit to make a difference even on the wider ice sheet. There’s also more mobility throughout the defense, which could end up being a separating factor.

Additionally, the goaltending now is on a par of the Mike Richter-led years. And far ahead of where the U.S. was in 2006 at the position.

American hockey players are being developed differently and they’re part of an era where success is not a hope or a miracle, it is an expectation.

Not only has the NTDP made a difference, but you look at the USHL and the strides the league has made over the last decade of being a Tier 1 entity under USA Hockey’s umbrella. Several key players for Team USA will have been groomed in that league as well.

College hockey and yes, even Canadian major junior, have also helped widen the pool by taking some well-molded players and finishing them off before they head to the NHL.

The gap between the U.S. and Canada is still a gap, but it’s not necessarily a wide one. The depth is not close, but when you put best-on-best, the U.S. can compete, just as Vancouver proved.

The 2014 U.S. team is probably not going to be as star-studded as that of 1998 or 2002, but it is the right mix of youth, experience and, above all, talent.

Not every player on Team USA is going to have that same experience, but many of the core players do, like Parise, Suter, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel. And though the last Olympics was on a smaller ice surface, many of Team USA’s players will have that high-pressure experience to call upon. There’s a lot of value in that, no matter the size of the surface.

If this team fails, it won’t be because “Oh, well, the U.S. just doesn’t play well in overseas Olympics.” That won’t be a valid excuse and shouldn’t be anyway.

No question, the U.S. has struggled on the biggest stage across the pond, but it has never approached the Olympics with players that have had years of international success and the resources plugged into them like these. That makes Sochi an incredibly interesting tournament for America’s status in hockey.

You can only learn so much in a two-week tournament and it’s never really fair to draw broad conclusions from them, but the 2014 Olympics may be a touchstone moment in American hockey development one way or another.

In a lot of ways, this is the tournament USA Hockey starting building towards in 1996. With the future of NHL players at the Olympics still in doubt, it may also be the tournament they are judged by.

List of Candidates* with IIHF Gold Medals/Olympic Silver

Ryan Miller — G — Buffalo Sabres: 2010 Olympics
Jonathan Quick — G — LA Kings: 2010 Olympics
Jimmy Howard — G — Detroit Red Wings: 2002 U18
John Carlson — D — Washington Capitals: 2010 WJC
Justin Faulk — D — Carolina Hurricanes: 2010  U18
Cam Fowler — D — Anaheim Ducks: 2009 U18, 2010 WJC
Jake Gardiner — D — Toronto Maple Leafs: 2010 WJC
Erik Johnson — D — Colorado Avalanche: 2005 & 2006 U18, 2010 Olympics
Jack Johnson — D — Columbus Blue Jackets: 2005 U18, 2010 Olympics
Seth Jones — D — Nashville Predators: 2011 & 2012 U18, 2013 WJC
Brooks Orpik — D — Pittsburgh Penguins: 2010 Olympics
Ryan Suter — D — Minnesota Wild: 2002 U18, 2004 WJC, 2010 Olympics
Jacob Trouba — D — Winnipeg Jets: 2011 & 2012 U18, 2013 WJC
Dustin Brown — F — LA Kings: 2010 Olympics
Ryan Callahan — F — New York Rangers: 2010 Olympics
Alex Galchenyuk — F — Montreal Canadiens: 2013 WJC
Patrick Kane — F — Chicago Blackhawks: 2006 U18, 2010 Olympics
Ryan Kesler — F — Vancouver Canucks: 2002 U18, 2004 WJC, 2010 Olympics
Phil Kessel — F — Toronto Maple Leafs: 2005 U18, 2010 Olympics
Kyle Palmieri — F — Anaheim Ducks: 2010 WJC
Zach Parise — F — Minnesota Wild: 2002 U18, 2004 WJC, 2010 Olympics
Joe Pavelski — F — San Jose Sharks: 2010 Olympics
Bobby Ryan — F — Ottawa Senators: 2010 Olympics
Brandon Saad — F — Chicago Blackhawks: 2010 U18
Paul Stastny — F — Colorado Avalanche: 2010 Olympics
Derek Stepan — F — New York Rangers: 2010 WJC
James van Riemsdyk — F — Toronto Maple Leafs: 2006 U18

* – Candidates include only those invited to Olympic Orientation Camp

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Since there’s been some confusion… this is not a roster projection. This list only includes players that are both Olympic candidates invited to camp with international gold medals in their USA careers.***

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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