|Hockey player David Backes poses for a portrait during the 2013
Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 29, 2013 in Park City, Utah.
PARK CITY, Utah – The U.S. men’s ice hockey team at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games featured just three of 23 players with previous Olympic experience.
It hardly mattered.
The youngest U.S. men’s hockey team since NHL players began participating in the Winter Games went to the gold-medal game and took host Canada into overtime before ultimately settling for a silver medal.
The 25 players who will be selected to represent the United States at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games are likely to feature more Olympic experience, but, importantly, almost all of the players are likely to have had some international experience.
USA Hockey has put an increased emphasis on developing its youth national teams, and the results have paid off in the form of gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championships and World Under-18 Championships.
The foundation was set in 2002, when the United States won the IIHF World Under-18 Championship for the first time. Two years later, Team USA won the world junior (Under-20) title for the first time. Outside of the Olympic Winter Games, the United States had not won an IIHF world championship event since 1933.
Three players who were key members of those teams — Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — later turned out to be key players for Team USA in Vancouver.
And since 2004, the United States has won world juniors again in 2010 and 2013 and has dominated the U18 championships, winning in 2005, 2006 and 2009–2012.
David Backes, a center for the St. Louis Blues, competed at the IIHF World Championships three times (2007, 2008 and 2009) before representing Team USA in Vancouver in 2010. Backes, who helped lead Team USA to a silver medal at the world championships in 2012, was in Park City, Utah, for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Media Summit earlier this month.
“You see guys who are leaders in this group now, [guys like] Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, that won world juniors in Helsinki in 2004, and that seems to translate and gives them a leg up,” said Backes, who hopes to represent Team USA in a second Winter Games in Sochi. “When you go somewhere and you feel and you know that you can have success and win, that tends to give you success and translates into wins.”
Added Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations: “I think going back to the success we’ve had in the last six to eight years, really at those younger levels, there’s more and more guys walking in saying we expect to win this championship, and that carries into our Olympic locker room because of, quite honestly, the success that they’ve had, but also knowing where they fit within the depth of all the other countries.”
USA Hockey invited 48 players to its U.S. men’s national team orientation camp in August, with 16 of them having previous Olympic experience. Yet almost all of the players have suited up for some U.S. Select or National Team, including at the IIHF World Championships, which take place during the Stanley Cup playoffs and thus only include players who did not qualify.
“The reality is for a lot of guys, it’s not a rarity, but it’s not often that we get guys at the world championships that haven’t put our jersey on and played at the younger level,” Johannson said.
A big part of the United States’ recent international success has been the U.S. National Team Development Program, a two-year residency program in which the top 17- and 18-year-old players live in Ann Arbor, Mich., and play a United States Hockey League junior schedule, plus college opponents and three international tournaments, including the World Under-18 Championship. The program has been in place since 1996, and the list of alums includes seven 2010 U.S. Olympians: Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Patrick Kane, Kesler, Phil Kessel, Suter and Ryan Whitney.
More recent NTDP alums such as Justin Faulk, Jimmy Howard, Kevin Shattenkirk and James van Riemsdyk will be in the mix to join the 2014 Olympic Team, while the generation after that — think 19-year-olds Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, both top-10 picks in the NHL Entry Draft — were invited to the National Team Camp. And that’s not to mention other talented young players who did not go the NTDP route, such as Alex Galchenyuk, 19, who went third in the 2012 draft to the Montreal Canadiens and played on the 2013 world juniors squad.
“You look at guys like Seth Jones and Trouba or Beau Bennett [a 21-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins prospect] at the orientation camp, they are still waiting for their first time to shave but they have had those experiences where they’ve had that success,” Backes said.
The NTDP has helped create a race to the top, Johannson said, with players on the youth level stepping up their play in an effort to earn an invite to the NTDP. Another important factor has been NHL expansion, which has resulted in more elite players coming from non-traditional states.
The 45 players on the 2013-14 NTDP rosters represent 16 states, including four from California, one from North Carolina and one from Nebraska. That’s not to mention a combined 17 from the so-called M states: Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota.
“Without a doubt we are deeper now than we were in 2006,” said Johannson, who competed in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games and has had a management role in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games for USA Hockey. “In 2006 we took our best players, if you will, and said, you know, ‘This guy can kill penalties, he is a good hockey player.’ I think when we look at that roster now we are saying, ‘He is one of the best penalty killers in the league and he is a good player. This guy is a top offensive player in the league.’
“So I think you are going to see a roster with more guys slotted in what they do really, really well, and hopefully, that translates to success in Sochi.”