Tuesday, 8 January 2008

ESPN's Burnside Gets It Right

I was reading through ESPN today, looking for something to amuse my hockey passion, when I stumbled across the article written by ESPN scribe Scott Burnside entitled Red, White And Who?. Burnside basically boils the article down to the hockey cultures surrounding the Canadian and USA World Junior Championship teams, and how they differ immensely in terms of attitude and results. Personally, this might be the best article that I have ever read on ESPN about how the game is fundamentally flawed at the grassroots level in the United States. I commend Scott Burnside for tackling a delicate subject.

In his article, Burnside makes mention of the apathy the American public has towards the most talented hockey players under the age of 20 in the US system a few times, most notably in his opening paragraph. This has always been a shock to me that the US public simply ignores the best young talent their country has to offer, yet can be the same public that heaps praise on their best professional players. As Burnside wrote, "[i]t's a good thing few people in the United States follow the Under-20 World Junior Championship", otherwise there may have been outrage with the way the Americans performed. However, his statement also has an ugly flipside - no one is watching, which is sad.

The stats don't lie about how hockey in the US has developed to be parallel with the Canadian system. Burnside writes, "U.S.-born players were selected 1st and 2nd at last year's NHL entry draft (namely, Patrick Kane and James vanRiemsdyk) and the American contingent at last year's draft represented a record 29.9 percent of all players selected". It was the first time ever that American's had gone first and second overall, and it was also the first time that Americans had been selected first overall in consecutive drafts after defenceman Erik Johnson went first overall in 2006.

It doesn't stop there, though, as Burnside continues presenting a strong case. He writes, "[t]en Americans were taken in the first round each of the last two years. In short, the U.S. is producing top-level hockey talent in unprecedented numbers". And, in short, they are. Since 1987, the following NHL players have played in the World Junior Championships for Team USA: Patrick Kane, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Phil Kessel, Peter Mueller, Chris Bourque, Ryan Suter, Ryan Callahan, Dan Fritsche, Patrick O'Sullivan, Drew Stafford, Patrick Eaves, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Rick DiPietro, Brian Gionta, Michael York, Scott Lachance, Jeremy Roenick, Scott Young and Brian Leetch.

Not a bad list of players, eh? However, the results that USA Hockey needs just aren't being produced. Since 1986, the Americans have won a total of five medals: three bronze, one silver, and one gold. During the last 22 years, the USSR ceased to exist, Sweden disappeared as a hockey power, and Czechoslovakia split into two nations. With the hockey world weakening, it leads me to ask where USA Hockey gone wrong? As Burnside put it, "[a]ll of which makes you wonder if the millions of dollars spent housing the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., are worth it". Is it? If the results against a weaker hockey world aren't being obtained, is USA Hockey doing things right?

Burnside goes on to show the Canadian psyche when it comes to the World Junior Tournament. He writes, "[t]he Canadian program under coaches like Craig Hartsburg and his predecessor, Brent Sutter, is run like an NHL team. Players, although predominantly 18- and 19-year-olds, are treated as pros, which is commensurate with the expectations that surround the Canadian team each December. It is not a huge stretch to suggest that the pressure on the Canadian junior team each year is almost as great as the pressure on the Canadian men's Olympic teams. The tournament regularly draws enormous television ratings in Canada, and the players are feted as heroes when they win and are subject to scathing reviews when they don't".

Indeed, it is run like an NHL team. The Canadian World Junior team brings its own chef and cooking team with it for the players. The players are viewed as hockey idols for approximately one month, an entire nation living and dying with their every move. They have as much press and TV media following them as any given NHL team. They are, for lack of a better term, professional hockey players when it comes to this tournament when you look at the scrutiny, the pressure, and the circus that surrounds these kids.

In looking at the American program, Burnside writes, "[t]he American program, while icing squads that matched up well with the Canadians on paper at least, have little external pressure on them to perform and clearly little internal pressure or motivation to make up for that". And therein lies the difference.

For Team Canada, wearing the maple leaf on your jersey is a matter of pride. It shows the heart and courage and sweat that has been institutionalized as a member Team Canada, and it is understood that when the jersey is pulled over your head, anything less than gold is a failure. Wearing the red-and-white colours makes you accountable not only to yourself, your coach, or your teammates, but to an entire country that lives and breathes hockey. It is that external pressure that forces the players to accept nothing less than the best. It is the pressure from 30 million hockey fans that forces Team Canada into demanding a higher standard from its players, coaches, and organization.

I'll let Scott Burnside explain the importance of having Americans shift their attitudes regarding hockey in America over the next year.

"Those who knew that 2004 American team, a team that erased a 3-1 third-period deficit in beating Canada, suggest Mike Eaves was that kind of coach, demanding accountability from his players throughout the tournament. It is a dynamic that has yet to be repeated, creating the impression that the NTDP coddles players as much as it develops them for international competition.

"Why does it matter?

"With the World Junior Championship coming to North America for the next four years (three times in Canada, once in the U.S. at a site yet to be determined), the ground is fertile for USA Hockey to build a following for the junior program, to create buzz around the team. But until USA Hockey can find a way to avoid what has become its annual malaise come WJC time, there will be little chance at traction."

Scott Burnside should be handed the keys to the doors of the training centre in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He understands that hockey in the US will never ascend the mediocrity it finds itself buried under until someone makes the players accountable to the entire nation. He understands that finishing out of the medal rounds will continue to be the only reality for USA Hockey until pressure is placed on the players and organization to make wearing the red, white, and blue on the ice a symbol of national pride and focus. The problem, though, is that there is only one group of people in the world that can make this happen, and they don't work or play for the USA Hockey program.

They are the fans. They are the men and women and children of the country of the United States of America. Once the idea of breaking the mediocrity of finishing fourth or sixth or eighth, USA Hockey becomes a power. If that idea is allowed to flourish for several years, the US becomes a dominant power like Canada or Russia.

Therein lies the rub, though. Hockey has never been a dominant sport in the US like it has in Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, or Finland - places where medals in Olympic hockey or World Championship hockey are expected. I'm not saying that there aren't Americans who don't care about World Junior hockey or World Championship hockey, but it sure seems that way.

And that, in itself, is damned shame for hockey in America to exist. Especially when the American people expect nothing but gold when it comes to the Olympics, the biggest stage when it comes to hockey on the world's stage.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Connie said...

Great article and fantastic post, Teebz. I just had a discussion today with a non-hockey loving friend about the differences of the mentality towards the WJC in our two countries. I feel that hockey in Canada is like football x10 in the US with hockey being a tiny blip on the radar. Thus the coverage of the WJC was ...poor at best. I mean, why did I need to search for USA coverage when the Canadian coverage on TSN.ca was phenomenal? It was extremely well done and I completely agree that these kids are treated like they’re in the NHL for this tournament. I’m not saying this as someone who’s watched the WJC every year; this was actually my first year witnessing the insanity that is Canada’s pride for this event. I was beyond jealous at the support that these boys received by the thousands who traveled to the Czech Republic. The only time I saw the US take the ice was when they played Canada and that's just sad. But even when they aired the Bronze Medal game, I wasn’t interested. I wanted to consume all of the coverage of Team Canada. I wouldn’t say I didn’t necessarily care about Team USA, but I had a separate vested interest in Canada seeing as how the Kings had three prospects on the roster.

So it was either struggle to find information on a team from my country or sit back and be spoon-fed all the information that I wanted. Which would you have chosen?

What I found amazing was that the US went undefeated up to the medal rounds, but...who cared? The Canadians lost one game and the world almost ended. I just couldn’t believe the amount of pressure put on these boys! It was amazing; there is definitely no national push like that for the US team from the masses. I’d definitely like there to be, but the lack of coverage kills it. I thought the media coverage of Team Canada was top notch, so maybe if the US had something similar, that’d help. But for now, it is what it is.

dmon said...

ESPN is part of the fundamental problem, which is TV coverage. There are hockey fans in America, but they can't find hockey on TV. Go to any tourist place anywhere in America, and you'll see someone somewhere with an NHL team logo on (I was at the San Diego Zoo during the holidays, saw Avs, Sabres, Ducks, Kings, Wings and Bruins logos - as well as Nucks, Flames and Leafs...). But turn on the TV looking for the World Juniors and you're out of luck. Poker on ESPN. Football games from the 80s. Coverage of Roger Clemens and his trainer.

Bettman's in large part responsible, for skewering the NHL product with talent-watering expansion, two lockouts, and bad coverage deals (who can even find Versus on their channel lineup?).

American fans will watch hockey... if they can find it.

Teebz said...

ESPN has NEVER covered anything lower than the professional ranks of hockey in their existance.

And the NHL netowrk covered all the US medal round games. It was there to be found.

Versus and ESPN are part of the problem, but the laisser-faire attitude of the public towards the best under-20 players in the US is disappointing.

Especially when the US prides itself on being #1 in everything it does.

Connie said...

Versus is a joke.

And they DID show the US medal round, but by the time it rolled around, I really wasn't interested.

Kirsten said...

Well...where I'm from, hockey is God. Everyone I know in Minnesota followed the tournament avidly and cheered for Team USA, with the exception of myself, and a few Canadians I know that have come to the US to live...for now. (3 of 4 of them are from Winnipeg)

Then again, Minnesota is not like the rest of the US in many ways. We have all those lakes that freeze, so hockey thrives here. I feel bad for the rest of the United States, or at least the people who don't have their heads up the NFL's ass...

An excellent post, Teebz.