Sunday, 4 July 2010

Some Americana To Ponder

HBIC is always tries to remain aware of holidays and observances that affect the readers, and today is one of those days. July 4 is a big day south of the Canadian border as the citizens of the United States of America celebrate the anniversary of the biggest day in their country's existence: Independence Day. After defeating the British and gaining their independence, the colonies began organizing themselves into the red-white-and-blue, patriotic country it is today. It's with great enthusiasm that I wish all the best to my American readers on this Independence Day, and I hope your celebrations are fun, and with family and friends.

If I may, however, I would like to create a little topic of discussion if you'll permit. With the idea of great Americans on my mind, it has become a much more difficult decision as to who the greatest American-born hockey players are. There are so many excellent American-born players in the NHL, and we've seen some spectacular performances in international play.

In thinking about this, there are a large number of American players that need to be considered. I'll arrange this discussion by creating two lines of American-born players throughout the annals of time. There will also be one line for the best international players as well. Let's take a look at who I chose as being the best American hockey players.

Forward: Mike Modano
Forward: Joe Mullen
Forward: Brett Hull
Defence: Brian Leetch
Defence: Chris Chelios
Goaltender: Mike Richter

Mike Modano is the leading scorer in terms of American-born players in the history of the NHL. His inclusion is almost elementary with the number of international appearances he has made for USA. Add in the 1999 Stanley Cup ring into the mix, and Modano is a highly-decorated American hockey player.

Joe Mullen has to be included as he was the first American-born player to score 500 goals in the NHL, a benchmark used for Hall of Fame credentials. Mullen also won three Stanley Cups as a member of the Calgary Flames and Pittsburgh Penguins, and he was a major goal-scoring threat right through to the end of his illustrious career.

While there are always critics of Brett Hull's personality, there was no denying that he was the most lethal sniper in the NHL for the better part of four seasons. While Hull never won a Stanley Cup while scoring hundreds of goals in the early-1990s, the transformation of his game into a two-way forward in Dallas brought him a Stanley Cup ring in 1999, and he added another with Detroit in 2002.

Brian Leetch's inclusion was made easy by his amazing career in New York City. He was part of the 1994 Stanley Cup victory by the Rangers, and became the only American-born Conn Smythe winner that year. He has twice won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman, and has inspired a large number of young hockey players with his play and his leadership.

There isn't much that needs to be said about Chris Chelios, but I'll try. 1983 NCAA Champion with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, played in four Winter Olympic Games, played in three Canada Cups, played in one World Cup, played in twelve NHL All-Star Games, and has won three Stanley Cups and three Norris Trophies. He's currently the oldest player still active in the NHL, has played the most games by an American player, and has suited up for three of the Original Six teams. Pretty impressive for the veteran of approximately 72 seasons.

Mike Richter did the one thing that Tom Barrasso, another American-born goaltender, could not. With Richter backstopping the 1994 New York Rangers, the goaltender became an icon in North America's largest market thanks to his performance in helping the Rangers capture the Stanley Cup. Richter was a household name in the USA while Barrasso was not. Because of his influence, Richter deserves the start.

What may be more important about all of these men is that they played in markets where hockey is taken very seriously. Modano started in Minnesota, and moved onto Dallas. Mullen played some of his best hockey in Pittsburgh. Hull put St. Louis into a higher echelon before joining Modano in Dallas, followed by a successful run in Detroit. Leetch and Richter were icons in New York during their careers. And Chelios has played in Detroit and Chicago where hockey can be life or death.

The second line of the NHL Americans are as follows:

Forward: Jeremy Roenick
Forward: Pat Lafontaine
Forward: Neal Broten
Defence: Phil Housley
Defence: Ken Morrow
Goaltender: Frank Brimsek

JR is the stuff of video gaming legend, and his real-life personality was pretty awesome as well. Not only could he score, but he could hit, skate, and was a leader for the Blackhawks. While he never captured a Stanley Cup, Roenick piled up the points during his career, and was always a fan favorite.

Pat Lafontaine never got the major chatter like some of his peers did, but he does have the highest point-per-game average of all American-born players in the history of the NHL. Lafontaine totaled up 1013 points in 865 games, averaging 1.171 points-per-game. Not bad at all, if you ask me. If it weren't for a spectacular run by Mario Lemieux, Lafontaine would have won one Art Ross Trophy.

Neal Broten will probably be questioned by a few people, but his inclusion is for what he did in the NHL. He was the first American-born player to record 100 points in a season, and he scored the game-winning goal that clinched the Stanley Cup in 1995 for the New Jersey Devils. He was the 1998 winner of the Lester Patrick Award for his contributions to hockey in the United States. Add on the fact that he was voted as the greatest hockey player from Minnesota, and he comes across as a pretty important player in the annals of American hockey greats.

Phil Housley is still the highest-scoring American-born defenceman in NHL history, and he's second all-time in scoring by American players. Having seen him play, he was one of the best skaters I've ever seen on NHL ice. Housley holds the record of being the player who has played the most games without winning the Stanley Cup - an unappreciated record to be sure. He played in seven NHL All-Star Games, and represented Team USA five teams.

Some may argue that other defencemen should be here in Ken Morrow's place, but there is no American-born player who has had the success that Morrow had at such a young age. By age 23, he had an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup Championship to his name. Morrow would go on to win three more Stanley Cups during the Islanders' dynasty. Morrow didn't score a ton of points, but he was one of the best defensive defencemen to suit up during the early-1980s. In 1996, he won the Lester Patrick Award for his contributions to hockey in the United States.

The choice of Frank Brimsek over players such as John Vanbiesbrouck, Tom Barrasso, or Mike Karakas might come as a surprise, but you don't earn the nickname of "Mr. Zero" without being pretty good. He was the first American-born goaltender inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and won two Stanley Cups which has him tied for the most amongst American-born goaltenders. His forty shutouts are the most by an American-born goalie with six of his forty blankings coming in his first eight NHL games, and he has two Vezina Trophies to his name.

Still with me? Those twelve men would be a pretty amazing all-time fantasy team, and every American should be proud of these men for their accomplishments. However, we're also going to take a look at the best international players that the United States has produced.

Forward: Jordan Schroeder
Forward: Cammi Granato
Forward: Mike Eruzione
Defence: Bill Baker
Defence: John Mayasich
Goaltender: Jim Craig

Jordan Schroeder, who is just beginning his pro career, eclipsed the 25-point Team USA all-time scoring record set by Jeremy Roenick at the World Junior Championships this past year. Schroeder has played in three WJCs, scoring 27 points with a Team USA-record 20 assists. Schroeder won a gold medal at the 2010 WJC. With his pro career just starting, it appears that Schroeder has a long career of international appears ahead of him.

Cammi Granato's influence on the women's game has been instrumental in making the US Women's Hockey Program into an international power. She still leads Team USA in scoring, and has won an Olympic gold medal, an Olympic silver medal, one World Championship gold medal, and eight World Championship silver medals. She is the recipient of the 2007 Lester Patrick Award for her contributions to hockey in the United States, and will be one of the first two women to be inducted as players into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.

Mike Eruzione needs no introduction. His name is as big in the United States as Paul Henderson's is in Canada. Eruzione played in the 1975 and 1976 World Championships, but his big moment came during the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games. Eruzione scored the game-winning goal against the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice" game that made him the most famous American hockey player for a long time.

Bill Baker is probably best known as the extra attacker who scored the tying goal against Sweden in 1980 at the Lake Placid Olympic Games. Baker's goal proved vitally important as the 2-2 tie against Sweden allowed Team USA to advance to the medal round where they would pull off the biggest victory in US Hockey history. Baker's Team USA jersey is currently displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Baker also played at the 1981 World Championships and the 1981 Canada Cup.

John Mayasich was a sensational scorer at the international level for Team USA. In 1956, Mayasich scored a hat trick as a forward to lead Team USA over Canada by a 4-1 score, and capture the silver medal. Before the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, Mayasich developed a slapshot that would have made Bobby Hull proud. In an exhibition game against Japan, Mayasich fired a slapshot from center that beat the Japanese goalie cleanly! With his return to the Olympics in 1960, Mayasich was shifted to defence so that Team USA could take advantage of his slapshot. Team USA defeated Canada, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia on their way to the 1960 Olympic gold medal! Mayasich played in five World Championships, earning a bronze medal and an All-Star team berth at the 1962 tournament.

The goaltending choice came down to Jack McCartan's 1960 gold medal performance and Jim Craig's "Miracle on Ice" Olympics. However, the most memorable win in USA's history can't go unheralded. Craig went 6-0-1 in the 1980 Winter Olympics, including that historical win over the Soviet Union where he posted 39 saves in the 4-3 "Miracle" win. While his NHL GAA ballooned to 3.77 after leaving the US National Team, he posted an amazing 2.14 GAA in the 1980 Winter Olympics to lead Team USA to the gold medal!

There are my picks for the best American players in the NHL and at the international level. Again, I'll probably stir up more discussion than settle any debates, but that's what this exercise is all about. After all, nationwide celebrations bring people together, and that's what I'm celebrating here: the best American-born hockey players to ever suit up in the NHL and in a Team USA uniform!

Happy Independence Day, my American neighbours, and be safe on this Fourth of July!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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