When USA Hockey introduced its management team for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey on Thursday in Lake Placid, NY, there was a definite sense of nostalgia.
The sense of nostalgia was not only due to the fact that the introductions were made in Herb Brooks Arena, fewer than 100 yards from where the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team stunned the mighty Soviets and eventually captured gold medals. Newly appointed U.S. general manager Dean Lombardi also pointedly referenced the “Miracle on Ice” and the U.S.’s gold medal-winning 1996 World Cup team when laying out his plans for the 2016 World Cup.
“It’s only fitting that today’s events take place in Lake Placid, NY, the site of the greatest spiritual victory in the sport of ice hockey for this country,” Lombardi said. “It’s an illustrious example of the power of team. It’s an example of the power of burying your ego, the power of accepting roles and the power of the pursuit of a common cause. It was powerful enough at that time to galvanize an entire country in what were dangerous times in this country’s history. It was powerful enough to transcend generations. It inspired a generation of youths that became the 1996 World Cup team, a team with the talent and the will to knock off all the great hockey powers.”
In addition to the introduction of Lombardi as GM, Paul Holmgren was unveiled as assistant general manager and Brian Burke was named senior adviser, while it was confirmed that longtime USA Hockey executive Jim Johansson will serve as director of hockey operations.
But as impressive as Lombardi’s presentation–which also referenced the leadership of George Washington and Roman general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus–was, there was a conspicuous sense of disappointment among USA Hockey’s management team in how recent best-on-best tournaments have finished for the United States. Despite numerous strong starts to tournaments, the U.S. has failed to win gold in a best-on-best tournament in its last six attempts, dating to the aforementioned ‘96 World Cup. Going back to the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. is just two for its last 15 when icing its best in international competition.
USA Hockey’s disappointment is exacerbated by the international success of Canada, which has twice ousted the U.S. for Olympic gold since 2002 and firmly solidified itself as the world’s elite hockey power.
“They’re (Canada) always the perennial favorites,” Lombardi said. “If you’re going to try to win it all, that’s who you have to focus on. That’s where your matchups have to start. Whether it’s the Russians, the Finns or the Swedes, they’re all extremely talented teams. But let’s get real. These are the guys that are always at the top.
“When speaking of Canada, one thing they’ve done very well is that they take their best players, but you see their best players sometimes adapting to a third or fourth-line role and being happy and proud to do it,” Lombardi added. “For us, if a player is a top-six forward, but he doesn’t have the character to maybe accept that’s he’s not on the first power play or whatever because that’s what he usually does with his NHL team, we cannot have him.”
Lombardi’s comments beg the question: Has a lack of teamwork been the source of the gold medal drought for U.S. hockey teams? Have there been too many large egos?
As much as the U.S. has admirably risen to become a legitimate hockey power far beyond what could have ever been expected 20 or 30 years ago, the absence of the United States’ next great hockey championship cannot be ignored. If the U.S. had more championship success, there wouldn’t be the need to lionize the 1996 World Cup and 1980 Olympic teams as often as Lombardi did on Thursday.
If Thursday’s press conference was any indication, it seems as if USA Hockey believes its most significant obstacle to ending this championship drought is assembling a combination of star players who can jell quickly enough to surpass the team that Canada will ice.
“It’ll be up to this generation of great players,” Lombardi said. “It’s up to the Parises, the Suters, the McDonaghs and the Quicks, to understand their legacy. This is their chance to build upon that legacy to inspire the next generation of American players. It’s a challenge for them”
Lombardi has issued the challenge. It’ll now be up to him to find a roster that can meet it.