For the past decade or so, hockey has been Canada's sport. Canadian players dominated the NHL and the sport was synonymous with maple leafs and French-Canadian accents and, for the most part, Canada has been the dominant force in international competition. The Soviet Union -- and then Russia -- threatened to knock Canada off it's perch from time to time and while the U.S. certainly took home some surprises along the way the middle portion of the continent was never exactly seen as a hotbed of talent growth until the past few decades or so.
USA Hockey has grown tremendously, however, and after Tuesday's win by the USA in the IIHF World Women's Championship, we've seen the United States continue to be a force to be respected when it comes to the national stage.
Led by Amanda Kessel, the U.S. Women's National Team finished with a 4-0-1 record in the tournament, winning the gold medal with a 3-2 victory over Canada and securing their fifth gold medial in the past seven competitions. Earlier this year the Under-20 men's team took home the gold medal with a win over Sweden and notching their second win in four years.
In the Olympics, the U.S. women's team won the first gold medal for the competition in 1998 and while Canada has earned the top spot in each of the last three Winter Olympics, the United States has remained a dominant force along with their northern neighbors. The men's team, in a competition comprised almost exclusively of NHL players, have yet to win a gold medal since that magical win in 1980 yet have secured the silver twice in the past three competitions.
The men's team is expected to be just as competitive in 2014 -- if the NHL allows its players to attend.
While it's tough to say that USA Hockey has suddenly become dominant, no longer can hockey in the United States be considered a sport that belongs elsewhere. The US National Team Development Program is now starting to pay dividends as some of the top alumni have reached the top pick in the NHL draft, with some of the best prospects coming from the program in recent years.
NCAA hockey has long been a competitive and entertaining source of prospects for the NHL, but nowhere near the level seen in the past decade or so. No longer are the top players coming from a few storied programs in just one or perhaps two top conferences; college hockey is spreading in popularity across the nation and more schools in more conferences are producing NHL ready talent -- just witness the amount of free agents coming from colleges that are so heavily sought after by NHL teams at the end of each season.
This summer, the top pick in the NHL draft is expected to be defenseman Seth Jones -- born and raised in Dallas, Texas and the son of a former NBA star. Jones was developed in the Dallas Stars junior hockey system and is himself a product of the USNTDP and is just another in a growing line of top NHL prospects to come from "non-traditional" markets in the United States.
While Canada has certainly been -- and remains -- the lead dog when it comes to hockey development and international competition there is a sense of panic growing that while the nation may be producing some great individuals, other countries have found the best way to produce better teams. Canada did not medal in this past World Junior Championship and has not earned gold since 2009, while the women's team has fallen to the U.S. in four the past five women's championships.
To be fair, the men's Olympic team for Canada has won gold twice in the past three tournaments, although nether Canada nor the U.S. medaled in 2006.
Hockey in the United States continues to grow and could be directly attributed to the focus of the NHL to promote the sport in markets many expected to never be able to support such a venture. While some teams have certainly failed in the NHL's move South, there's no doubting that the sport is better off now than it was two decades ago before hockey ever existed in places like Dallas or San Jose.