Officially, the NHL remains noncommittal about whether it will participate in next winter's Olympic Games in Sochi. The league, which has shut down for a midseason fortnight every four years since 1998 to allow its players to represent their home countries, is reportedly seeking extra rights and privileges from the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation for its troubles. There seems little doubt, however, that an agreement will eventually be reached, if only because players might revolt—the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin is so keen to represent Russia, he says he will go to Sochi even if the NHL doesn't. Regardless, there should be little question about the direction USA Hockey should take when selecting its leadership for Sochi and beyond.
Since 1998, USA Hockey has tapped NHL executives and coaches to lead the program, asking the likes of Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello (Nagano) and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette (Turin) to add the duties of patriotic flag-waver to their day jobs. But as U.S. Soccer has long done, it would be wise to soften the workload, avoid potential conflicts of interest and look for dedicated full-timers to assemble a roster and oversee the pursuit of the U.S.'s first hockey gold medal since 1980. Team USA's leaders from the Vancouver Games, where the Americans came within one goal of gold, were G.M. Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson. Both are currently out of NHL jobs—Burke was dismissed as G.M. of the Maple Leafs in January, 10 months after he fired Wilson, his friend and former college teammate at Providence—and Burke has already done plenty of advance scouting on behalf of the U.S., not only of players but also of the venues in Sochi. With little on his plate at the moment (he is a part-time pro scout for the Ducks), the 57-year-old Rhode Island native would be able to focus on putting together the best possible team.
It can be a delicate balance, juggling club and country. In 2002, Team Canada and then Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn benched goalie Curtis Joseph after Canada opened the Olympics with a 5--2 loss to Sweden. Joseph, who also was Quinn's goalie in Toronto, had let in four goals on 11 shots during an atrocious second period. His relationship with Quinn reportedly frayed soon after, and Joseph left for the Red Wings as a free agent the following off-season.
Though some might favor Laviolette, Rangers coach John Tortorella or Penguins coach Dan Bylsma—Stanley Cup winners all—to coach the U.S., why add to their already overflowing plates? Coaching one team, teaching one system and managing one bench should be enough. Wilson is the best American coach available.
March 18, 2013
Coaching and managing an all-star hockey team, vying to be the best in the world, is a big job. USA Hockey should treat it as such.
International medals won by U.S. teams coached by Ron Wilson (right). In addition to a silver in Vancouver, he led the Americans to a World Cup title in 1996, four months after he guided them to a bronze at the worlds.