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Miracle Off Ice

The U.S. faces Canada in the Sochi men’s hockey semifinals Friday. How did it grow into a hockey power?

“Do you believe in miracles?” Al Michaels shrieked, as the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Games. “Yes!” Sitting next to him in ABC’s broadcasting booth, all I could come up with was, “Unbelievable.”

During the NHL season that same year,1 out of the 654 players who appeared in at least one game, 68 were American.2 Best known among them were Mark Howe (who had a significant Canadian background), Peter McNab (ditto), Rod Langway, Mike Milbury, Reed Larson, and Paul Holmgren. About 84 percent of the NHL’s players were Canadian.

Ten years earlier, in 1969-70, eight out of a total of 322 NHL players3 were from the U.S. Five were regulars, including Charlie Burns, who was born in Detroit but grew up in Toronto and played for a Canadian team, the Whitby Dunlops, in the World Hockey Championships. Another was Lou Nanne, who as a kid played on the same youth hockey teams as Phil and Tony Esposito (and Governor General David Johnston) in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Canadians made up about 95 percent of the league.

Ten years before that, in 1959-60, three out of 153 NHL players were American,4 two of whom were goalies who combined for five games played. (One of those goaltenders, Jack McCartan, had starred for the U.S.’s gold-medal winning team at Squaw Valley.) The only regular was Burns, again. The league was about 97 percent Canadian.

This season, of the 906 players who have appeared in at least one NHL game, 218 are American.5 About 52 percent are Canadian.

What happened?

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U.S. hockey had been born and bred in the prep schools of New England, in the high schools of Minnesota, and in the winter climates and colleges of both. School-based play limited both the number of games and the length of seasons, and required that some priority be given to the classroom. That put U.S. players at a developmental disadvantage to their club-team-based Canadian counterparts. In the NHL’s mind, Americans didn’t play enough games against tough competition to put the pieces together. U.S. players looked good, which — when they invariably folded in the few opportunities they got — made them seem even worse. Their fault wasn’t talent, but character. They couldn’t hold up against the grit of the Canadian players. NHL general managers also believed that any player who had to make a life choice — hockey or school — couldn’t be relied upon. When the hockey going got rough, they’d quit. If they weren’t certain to commit to the game, GMs believed, why commit to them? For Americans, college hockey was their NHL, the Olympics were their Stanley Cup, and it would always be this way, it seemed. Besides, with only six teams, the league didn’t need any non-Canadian players.

That changed when the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams in 1967, when its expansion continued during the 1970s, and after the creation of the WHA. Eastern Europeans, still stuck behind the Wall, were unavailable; Swedes and Finns, highly skilled but seen as more likely to flee than fight, were considered even more dubious prospects than U.S. players. The NHL door was no longer shut to Americans; they could earn their way inside. With that chance, most proved false the stereotypes that had held them back.

Many players from the 1980 American Olympic team went on to solid NHL careers — Neal Broten, Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Mark Johnson, and Ken Morrow among them. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s and ’90s that Americans first became NHL stars — players like Brett Hull (who also had a significant Canadian background), Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Joey Mullen, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Tkachuk, and Jeremy Roenick.

The Americans’ win in 1980 offered inspiration. Just as important for the U.S. was the success of European teams, especially the Soviets, when they played Canada. The Soviets had shown that more than one style of play and more than one approach to development could produce victory at the highest level. If two could succeed, why not three? School strictures may have held back U.S. hockey, but schools may have also offered some advantages. Schools had gyms and weight rooms. They had physical-education teachers who could maximize their athletes’ training and nutrition, and study the game and its strategies. U.S. hockey administrators could develop a structure that put summers to better use, creating camps of selected players and development teams, and starting them at a younger age. These coaches and administrators came to the sport with fresh eyes, could see that times were changing, and found ways to adapt. They could see that elite performers in any field — arts, music, science, sports — no longer needed to emerge out of masses at a base, competing against each other, funneling themselves to the top. Masses weren’t necessary. A much smaller number, trained rigorously, could produce the same result. Players at these camps and on these development teams might come to know each other, might form such strong bonds that — even as they dispersed elsewhere during the winter — they would come back feeling like teammates at world junior and world championship tournaments, and at the Olympics.

The U.S. has gotten better each year. In Vancouver, they lost to Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game. In Sochi, they have defeated Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic — and meet Canada on Friday for a rematch of 2010 in the semifinals.6 The NHL expanded in recent decades to build a broadcast footprint that would cover most of the U.S. In ways that have often been hard to see, the NHL has also created an appetite for hockey among a seemingly modest number of kids. The result is startling.

More kids in Canada play hockey than in any other country in the world. More kids in the U.S. play hockey than in all the other countries in the world — Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc. — combined. There are more indoor arenas in Canada than anywhere else. There are more indoor arenas in the U.S. than in Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic combined.

Just a few years ago, more kids were playing hockey in Ontario than in any other province or state, by far.7 Quebec was next. But in the U.S., more kids were playing in New York than in Massachusetts; almost as many were playing in Michigan as in Minnesota; and more played in each of these four states than in British Columbia. More kids were playing hockey in Pennsylvania than in Saskatchewan or Manitoba; in California or New Jersey than in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. More kids were playing in Texas than in Newfoundland.

The changes in hockey in the past 40 years have been immense. The number of teams, the money, the off-ice, year-round training. But no change has been greater than in the rise of U.S. hockey.

In 1980 at Lake Placid, there was no way the U.S. was going to beat the Soviets and then win the gold medal. In 1980, there was no way that just 34 years later, about one quarter of the NHL’s players would be American. In 2014, the miracle is that it won’t take a “miracle on ice” for the U.S. to win in Sochi.

Filed Under: 2014 Winter Olympics, Ken Dryden, Hockey, Team Usa, Team Canada, Miracle on Ice