- After years of struggling on the international stage, the future of USA Hockey has never looked brighter—ask the NHL's young American stars, themselves.
Partway through pregame warmups for the Stars & Stripes Showdown, the summer exhibition that he helped organize to honor the late USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson, Dylan Larkin remembers surveying the star-studded scene in Plymouth, Mich., and remarking to himself, simply, “Holy crap, look at these guys out here.”
At first, the Red Wings forward was simply relieved that his peers were all there. Scores of calls, texts and meetings had dovetailed toward the sold-out event on Aug. 26, seven months after Johannson died of heart failure at 53. A live auction would be held. Tickets for autograph sessions would be sold. Proceeds would either benefit grassroots hockey programs, or help send Johannson’s two-year-old daughter Ellie to college. And Larkin, as a native of nearby Waterford and graduate of the national team development program, had volunteered to make sure the talent showed up.
Once those initial nerves were quelled—“I was like, ‘Thank god everyone’s here, it’s happening,’”—Larkin began to internalize the names of those skaters buzzing around USA Hockey Arena. Players like Maple Leafs dynamo Auston Matthews, Flames pest Matthew Tkachuk and Bruins top-pair blueliner Charlie McAvoy, cornerstones of their respective teams’ futures yet none old enough to legally drink in their home country. There were plenty of All-Stars in various stages of their primes—Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Connor Hellebuyck—but also draft picks with high expectations (just ask any Vancouver fan about Quinn Hughes).
In this moment, Larkin reached an epiphany.
“The state of USA Hockey has never been better,” he says, “and that’s a testament to J.J.”
The screams barreled down the aisle, reaching Brian Lawton at his seat near the front of the Team USA caravan. The words that followed are still seared in his mind:
“Holy s—-! The bus is on fire back here!”
This was late Dec. 1982 in modern-day St. Petersburg, Russia. Then a celebrated high school winger from Rhode Island, Lawton had just arrived with his teammates for the upcoming world junior championships. As the group was riding to its hotel, the bus’s rear engine had blown out, billowing smoke before eventually erupting into flames. Soon Lawton and his teammates were forced to disembark, wait for maintenance and shiver in the winter chill.
“And that,” Lawton says, “kind of symbolizes where USA hockey was at that time. It was very second-rate.”
No doubt that national team operations needed drastic improvement. The following spring, only three years removed from the Miracle on Ice, the U.S. would participate in Group B of the 1983 world championships after getting relegated due to past poor performance. Later on Lawton recalls getting paid for the 1987 world championships in a modest travel voucher … which bought him a middle seat along a five-person row in the smoking section to Vienna, Austria. “I remember thinking, 'Did I volunteer to do this?'” says Lawton, now an NHL Network analyst.
Of course, Lawton can laugh at these woebegone memories considering how much has changed. One crucial flash point happened at Montreal Forum on June 8, 1983, when Lawton became the first American picked No. 1 (North Stars) and two others—Pat Lafontaine (Islanders) and Tom Barrasso (Sabres)—went in the top five. “I felt like it validated what the 1980 U.S. Olympic team had done,” Lawton says. “It helped us to dream bigger. It helped us to believe that we could do things that hadn’t really happened much before then.”
Thirty-five years after Lawton made history, the U.S. continues breaking new ground with its individual talent. In ‘87-88, only 115 Americans logged at least one NHL game; according to QuantHockey, that figure ballooned to 269 in 2017-18, an all-time record. Vancouver’s Brock Boeser and Arizona’s Clayton Keller—Minnesota and St. Louis natives, respectively—finished second and third in Calder Trophy voting. More are coming too: Quinn Hughes’s younger brother Jack is expected to be the top selection in next June’s draft and three fellow players from the U.S. national team development program could follow in the top 10, which would tie a record.
“Look around the league,” says McAvoy, now entering his second year after leading the Bruins in ice time during the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. “You see all these American-born hockey players, it’s special. You can definitely forecast something special happening with this crowd.”
One by one, the Americans aired their regrets.
“Obviously Canada’s been pretty dominant at that stage of hockey,” says Matthews, 20, the Arizona native entering his third season in Toronto. “Would’ve been nice last year to get a crack at that.”
“It sucks,” says Florida Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, 25, who hails from the Pittsburgh area. “It’d be cool to see that kind of battle right now.”
“It’s something I would die to be a part of,” says Larkin, 22, “because it’s going to be special.”
They are speaking about martialing the full weight of U.S. hockey at a best-on-best international tournament. Or, more specifically, missing out on that chance during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, such was the NHL’s insistence that its players remain at home for the first time since 1994. A similar opportunity was squelched during the 2016 World Cup when Team North America was formed, though that under-23 collection of All-Stars—including Matthews, Trocheck and Larkin—proved a dazzling display of combined Canada-U.S. might.
Which leaves Larkin and his peers eagerly looking ahead to Beijing 2022 … assuming the league and its players association broker some international peace accord in the next round of collective bargaining talks. The Sidney Crosby-led core that steered Canada to first place in Sochi will have crested into its 30s by then, but superstars such as two-time Art Ross champion Connor McDavid, defending Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal and others are ready to accept the mantle. It’s hard not to start salivating at the potential USA-Canada gold medal matchup already.
“I think it’s come a really long way,” says Jones, the Blue Jackets blueliner who finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting last season, which an American hasn’t won since ‘96-97. “You grow up in Canada, all you know is hockey. There are so many other sports in the U.S. that kids probably want to play before they try hockey—a lot easier to play than hockey as well. I know a lot more Canadian players are still in the U.S., but I think it’ll start evening itself out.”
Credit is owed to many sources, from the 1988 trade of Wayne Gretzky, to pockets of former NHL players helping develop youth in non-traditional markets like South Florida and Greater Phoenix, to the strengthened NCAA ranks that boasted 310 alumni—and 80% of all Americans—in the NHL last season. But few individuals have achieved greater impacts than Johannson, the longtime executive who joined USA Hockey in 2000 and served in various capacities until his death, including general manager of the 2018 U.S. Olympic men’s team.
As a player, Johannson was among the early-1980s generation of Americans who grew up in the wake of the Miracle on Ice; he was riding alongside Lawton and Barrasso when the charter bus caught fire. “He was a driving force in changing everything that happened because he saw everything firsthand,” Lawton says. “Every year it feels like USA Hockey is reaching new heights.”
One specific moment stands out. Two years ago, Lawton was providing television commentary for the 2016 NHL draft in Buffalo, where Matthews became the first No. 1 pick to hail from the Sunbelt. Eleven other Americans were ultimately chosen in the first round, including five St. Louisans: Keller, Tkachuk, Logan Brown (Ottawa), Luke Kunin (Minnesota) and Trent Frederic (Boston). At the end of the weekend, Lawton was walking to his gate in the airport concourse when he ran into Johannson, who immediately rattled off those milestones with a wide smile.
“Jimmy was just beaming about how incredible it was for USA Hockey, how big of a day,” Lawton says. “I just remember thinking, 'Wow, that’s a long way from 1980. It feels like it took forever, and yet it happened so fast.'”