February 23, 2006

Decline of American Hockey Empire Complete

By Alan Crosby

TURIN -- The ouster of the United States men's ice hockey team from the Olympic Games has capped the decline of a once-powerful American program that now must rebuild.

A decade ago the U.S. was on top of the hockey world, having won the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, beating arch-rivals Canada in the final.

That victory rivaled the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic gold medal and propelled the sport in the U.S. new heights.

In 2002, the U.S. were still a dominant hockey nation, riding the fruits of their grassroots program to a silver medal in Salt Lake City after losing a thrilling final to Canada.

But in Turin, just four years later, the Americans limped out of the tournament in the quarter-finals on Wednesday, compiling a record of one win, one tie and four losses after a week of uninspired play by a veteran squad.

The Americans trailed constantly in games and never showed a sense of urgency needed in a tournament that crams the first five games in seven days.

"For sure, a lot of the guys who played here (in Turin) will leave," said defenseman Jordan Leopold. "It's time for some new blood to come in.

"But the guys who are leaving have given a lot to this program and can be proud, no matter what happened here."

Part of the problem for the U.S. has been replacing older players.

In Salt Lake City the team rode Mike Richter's phenomenal play while Brett Hull, John LeClair and Phil Housely beefed up the attack.


But USA Hockey has been slow to incorporate younger players into the fold as veterans retired.

In Turin it was apparent some of those players had lost a step, but there was no where else to turn to since management had chosen a controversial group of players, including 14 players over 30 years of age.

Left behind were promising youngsters Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.

"You'd think USA Hockey would be a well-oiled machine, but it's not," said veteran Mike Modano after the quarter-finals loss to Finland.

In part, Modano, an integral part of the team for a decade, was frustrated with being benched in the third period and for a disappointing end to the tournament.

But as the face on the cover the U.S. media guide, his words are likely to help spur some soul searching within the American program.

Even the U.S. women are facing a crisis of sorts.

After taking gold in 1998, they have taken a step down on the podium in each of the subsequent two Games: a silver in Salt Lake City and bronze in Turin.

Though they remain the only team that can seriously challenge gold medallists Canada on a regular basis, the Americans have failed to take their game higher and many veterans are now leaving. Coach Ben Smith is likely to leave after 10 years of service.

"I don't know quite what my role will be with USA Hockey in the future," he said in Turin.

"I hope to continue in some form, but I think we need more women in our leadership positions. I hope that day is coming, and I hope it comes soon."