The graying of the red, white and blue in international hockey is over. After leaning on USA Hockey's greatest generation for so long, the U.S. will enter the world championship, which starts this Saturday in Austria, with a roster dotted with players who were still being driven to rinks by their parents when the 1996 World Cup team played the highest-caliber hockey America has ever produced--and that includes the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
No global hockey power needed a face-lift for this event more desperately than the U.S. With 13 holdovers from 1996 on its World Cup roster last fall, Team AARP failed to beat Finland in the semifinals in St. Paul, a harsh reminder that last call has come and gone for stalwarts like Chris Chelios, Brett Hull and Brian Leetch.
"If you look at our '96 team and then the Olympic teams that followed...some of those [roster] choices were made on reputation," says Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, who headed the '96 World Cup champs and the '98 Olympic squad that failed to earn a medal.
The average age on the U.S. world championship roster has dipped to 28, a youth movement given that two thirds of the 2004 World Cuppers were 31 or older. Centers Mike Modano and Doug Weight remain as leaders, but they will be supported by promising NHL forwards who are hardly big names: Erik Cole, Brian Gionta and Richard Park. This transitional U.S. team has back-end skill in defensemen Jordan Leopold and John-Michael Liles and front-end speed--a combination that is ideal for playing on the wide international ice surface.
Just as Canada went through a relatively fallow period in the early- and mid-1990s, the U.S. has been mired in a talent-producing slump. Since 1996 the best American to emerge has been Scott Gomez, a sweet-passing center but not the impact player Hull, Keith Tkachuk and John LeClair were. (Gomez, who broke a bone in his pelvis last week during a game with the ECHL's Alaska Aces, will not play in the worlds.) Can this new generation--which will soon include talented-but-raw youngsters such as 17-year-old wunderkind forward Phil Kessel and 20-year-old forward Zach Parise--revitalize USA Hockey? "We won't know until we play an event like this," says Ron Wilson, who coached two World Cup teams and the '98 Olympic squad. "One group of players carried USA Hockey for a long time. It's hard to replace guys like that."
Who'll Rule the Worlds?
A look at how the other medal contenders shape up
CANADA Has added Rick Nash, a 41-goal scorer for the Blue Jackets in 2003--04, to a stocked lineup. Unmatched depth.
CZECH REPUBLIC When they're on, look out; and bellwether star Jaromir Jagr recently tore up Russia's Superleague.
RUSSIA Great firepower (Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Alexander Ovechkin) but has trouble spreading the puck around.
SLOVAKIA A poor man's Russia (dazzling forwards Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik) with better teamwork. Weak in net.
FINLAND Notable absences in Saku Koivu and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, but the Finns play as doggedly as anyone.