If you were left disenchanted by USA Hockey this World Cup, Team North America was here to save you all along. And dammit, the kids did it again, even if it was likely their last call.
Surrounded by regressive hockey culture, at times I’ve become cynical or maybe jaded. I guess my passion is bending. I wouldn’t concede it’s breaking, but wearing—bending.
Maybe this is a slumber from the past few years of watching the Red Wings muddle, and especially past few days of USA Hockey at the World Cup.
Especially in regard to Team USA, it’s been hockey at its worst; brutish, sloppy, sluggish, just a canvas slung with paint and no brush or form or discernible skill. It’s the style of hockey U.S.S.R. coaching legend Anatoli Tarasov mocked and exploited back in the late 50’s through early 70’s.
Somehow, in Detroit, we’ve witnessed both our NHL team and national team willingly fall backwards through time in the past five years.
The game has evolved wonderfully through players naturally becoming more athletic and skillful, given more resources from birth with better equipment and scouting tools. Yet, we’re bogged down supporting one franchise and one program that has outstanding development turning out an overflow of skill, but ironclad stubbornness at the top that’s slowed actual results to a trickle.
Ken Holland and USA Hockey’s General Manager, Dean Lombardi’s approach to roster construction somewhat mirrored each other (love of Justin Abdelkader included). They have more than enough younger, skillful players to pick from. Instead they opted to exchange Home Depot gift cards. You know the rest of this metaphor by now.
Despite my own preemptive ex-patting on Team USA before the tournament, by the end of Tuesday night’s gore, I couldn’t help but feel the embarrassment, shame and anger creep in as the Canadian fans taunted with “NAH! NAH! NAH! GOODBYE!” chant. Such as the Red Wings franchise is capable of being better, USA Hockey is capable of being better.
Team North America has shown that; twelve American born players, one who happens to be a Red Wing named Dylan Larkin.
Still, we’ve even seen Team North America have its “Old Guard” moments via head coach Todd McLellan and GM Peter Chiarelli.
Chiarelli may’ve been busted trying to get a concussed player on the ice in the dawn of head injury awareness and retired player lawsuits.
Aaron Ekblad, who is arguably the best all-around player on the team, was ruled out before the Russia game with an “upper body injury” later reported to be a “mild” concussion. Chiarelli initially refused to comment.
Following the 4-3 loss to Russia, North America, now in a desperate spot, gave the injury report to TSN’s Bob McKenzie as “day-to-day”, making it sound like a return was imminent. Considering this is ultimately an exhibition and Ekblad just received a $60 million contract from the Florida Panthers, they understandably called BS. Just hours later, he was ruled out the rest of the tournament.
McLellan had his moment when he first punished Larkin along with several other players in the midst of a disastrous second period vs. the Russians.
Larkin sat after being on the ice for two of Russia’s goals in their onslaught—which looking back, one was aided by a bad bounce nowhere near him and goaltender Matt Murray trying to play through an unchecked hand injury. Jonathan Drouin, Jack Eichel and Brandon Saad were also put in “time out” to think about what they did, while the rest of North America was visibly tired, making fatigue mistakes. Still, their immense depth brought them a Shayne Gostisbehere hit post with seconds left away from a third period comeback.
But McLellan felt the short bench became a necessity, even though North America lost the group tie-breaker by falling to the Russians.
Disappointingly, Larkin didn’t even dress for Wednesday’s dramatic overtime win vs. Sweden, sitting in favor of J.T. Miller.
Incredibly, he wasn’t needed. Johnny Gaudreau was totally dominant. As was Auston Matthews. And of course the finishing move put on by Nathan MacKinnon, in what was the most exhilarating four minutes and eleven seconds of hockey I can remember watching.
For the first time in years, I was emotionally moved by a hockey game. I felt the cynicism and monotony all melt away. Watching from afar I enjoyed the game at a pure level again. Because that’s what Team North America is; they’re pure fun and skill on ice. I believe that’s the way the game was meant to be played. I wish more important people agreed.
To a degree the game has been caught in this morass of executives and coaches trying to out think themselves into padlocking creativity. Legendary players including Mario Lemieux and former Red Wings, Brett Hull and Igor Larionov have spoken out on this before.
The players of Team North America managed subvert that, making it this far to at least give us the whirlwind vs. Finland and the jubilation of yesterday, capturing a childlike imagination. And ironically, because of McLellan needing to teach these boys some damn “hockey lessons” against Russia, there’s a good chance this mirage ended appropriately because it ended so beautifully.
If this was the end, I guess we’ll take it. I’ll take it.
Team North America has awoken me and hopefully they've had the same effect on NHL executives and coaches.