A Team That’s Tough to Play Against

In hockey, a litany of countries have left their trademark on the sport: you play a Russian style; you pass like the Swedes; you check like a Canadian.

But are you as tough to play against as an American?

In hockey, you work with a puzzle of 23 players, looking for the combination that cannot only play the game well, but that can play the game well together.  A puzzle where everyone knows where he fits in the scheme of the team.

We are two years removed today from when the U.S. men’s hockey team won the silver medal in the Vancouver Olympics, and halfway to when they try to better that at the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.  And it sounds like from talking to USA Hockey’s Jim Johannson, Team USA feels like it has some unfinished business.

“I also think what we’ll take away from that for a lot of our core players is the disappointment in that 20 seconds to one hour after the results of the gold medal game,” Johannson said.  “And, I think as we prepare for Sochi, a lot of core players being four years older that were involved in that and most likely involved going into Sochi, they’ll bring that full experience with them but they’re certainly going to bring that overtime and that short span after that game with them into Sochi.”

Though he didn’t specify the “core players,” at a different point in the interview, he talked about the contributions of many names familiar to NHL fans—still in the context of team effort, and of how difficult it would be to single out one person as the American hockey player most respected by the rest of the hockey world.

“It’s the makeup of a lot of guys: the competitiveness of Zach Parise, the will and the determination of David Backes … Ryan Callahan and Dustin Brown…and then simply to watch Patrick Kane play the way he played there …  the guy had the puck the whole game. … I’d be remiss without mentioning Ryan Miller,” Johannson described it. “There was one of our strengths—it was a group that wasn’t contingent on one or two guys carrying the offense, and it wasn’t contingent on one or two men carrying the physical presence of the game.”

What happened with the 2010 team, Johannson explained,was that each player knew clearly he was drafted for a specific role on the team and was being depended on to contribute that way.

“From the management side of it, we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to get all 23 of you guys right,” Johannson said.

Frankly, it sounds a lot like the approach that served Herb Brooks so well back in 1980: get the right combination of guys for what you’re looking for. And make sure they’re amazing skaters.

For Olympian and 2010 USA hockey silver medalist Zach Parise, the Americans are a kind of melting pot of skill sets, and they bring to the world stage an often overlooked weapon: the ability to adjust.

“I think we can adjust and play whichever style—we’ve got skilled players, we have hardworking guys, so we can play any style of game that we needed to win that tournament,” Parise says when asked what the U.S. brand of hockey is.

Johannson said he agreed with the melting pot idea to a point; but he says U.S. hockey is deep enough now to where it doesn’t simply have to select the best 23 players, but the right 23 players for the roles assigned.

“We have more players that can play at the highest level—and because of that, when we go up on the Olympic stage, we no longer have to just bring up the best 23 players. We can bring the best 23 players that fit within the team,” Johannson said.

Johannson’s answer to the brand of American hockey question tracks a slightly different path.

“Speed is a big component of the game, and I think that one of our trademarks, if you will, is we’ve become [a] very good skating team or program,” Johannson said. “We’re an attacking style of team, meaning we’re not going to sit back and let the skill and all that come at us. We’re gonna go attack it. … We play it disciplined, we play it hard, we play within the framework of the “rules” of the game, but we’re hard to play against.”

If there is one thing the Americans proved in 2010, it is that they are indeed hard to play against. Taking Canada all the way into overtime in a gold medal game on their home soil after already beating them once earlier in the competition was the stuff Cinderella stories and Ryan Miller’s glove are made of.

As a general rule, Parise says he tries not to let how he feels affect whether he thinks he’ll have a good or bad game.

“After you play in this league long enough, sometimes you feel like absolute garbage the whole day and you play one of the best games, so I try not to get too ahead of myself with that,” Parise said. For the gold medal game, he added, it’s one of those where you feel you have energy all game.

Not surprisingly, the sweet is mixed with the sour for Parise’s 2010 Olympic memories—that  down-to-the-wire goal scored that took the Americans into overtime—but he says  the experience gave him a confidence he was able to bring back to the NHL. Yes, you read that right—even Zach Parise needs a confidence booster sometimes.

“Sometimes you need that, sometimes players need to feel in the dump sometimes, and you just try to remember you were playing on the biggest stage against the best players and doing well,” Parise said.

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