USA hockey has a problem. No, it’s not exactly that they’re playing for their World Cup lives against favored Canada in the World Cup tonight. Moreover, it’s the root cause of the country’s struggles at the sport of hockey for the past few years.
Take T.J. Oshie — a USA hockey folk legend after his shootout heroics in Sochi — and his latest comments before the team’s do or die game in just a few hours.
"If it comes to 100% skill, they win. 100% grit, we win." —T.J. Oshie, on all you need to know about USA vs. Canada #WCH2016— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) September 20, 2016
Grit is something Team USA has in spades. Look up and down their roster and you’ll see a team stuffed to the gills with it, from Brandon Dubinsky — who was almost certainly brought to be a thorn in Sidney Crosby’s side, but strangely won’t play tonight — to Justin Abdelkader. Yet, where has that grit gotten them in this tournament? Blown out by a Frankenstein team of European players while facing almost certain elimination against their greatest rivals in Canada.
This grit and heart over skill and scoring tactic has plagued USA hockey for awhile now. Consider their failed Olympics in 2014 where the country couldn’t muster up a single goal in their semifinal and bronze metal matches. Or, their current situation in the World Cup as they sit tied for last with Finland for goals throughout the tournament as a whole with nine. Grit is a measurement so often tied to USA hockey, but at the end of the day it’s not counted on the scoresheet.
At the heart of this identity problem lies their personnel decisions. Left off Team USA’s roster are some big names: Phil Kessel — a member of the reigning Stanley Cup champions and 20-plus goal scorer — newly minted Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, and Tyler Johnson of Tampa Bay’s Triplets fame. Instead, players like Abdelkader — who hit the 20-goal threshold just once in his nine-year NHL career — Dubinsky, and Matt Niskanen are given spots.
With divisive head coach John Tortorella manning the bench and making decisions such as adding Abdelkader to the second line with Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane, it’s no wonder fans have jumped ship so quickly. Tortorella’s quote on Yahoo Sports makes it perfectly clear what Team USA values on their team:
“I just think Abby needs to be moved up in our lineup. Where he was in a third- or fourth-line role, I think he’s going to get a little more ice time,” said Tortorella. “I just think Abby has given us some forechecking. As held onto the puck more than some other guys. He just deserves to play more.”
For reference, Team Canada’s second line is John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, and Steven Stamkos.
Team USA’s ineptitude to get with the times has made many fans of the extremely fun and extremely young Team North America. The under-23s are everything Team USA is not, a team built to eviscerate their opponents with speed in a short tournament setting instead of the grind of a long season. It’s a crying shame players like Shayne Gostisbehere and Dylan Larkin will soon be in the clutches of USA hockey should they not change their ways.
But, they still can. The best case scenario for Team USA tonight is losing in a complete blowout to Canada. Why? Maybe, just maybe, the leadership of USA hockey will realize their product isn’t working. If the United States beats Canada, there is no doubt that Tortorella and players will praise their grit tactics and, at least in their minds, validate their existence as a team. But if they lose, the failures of two major tournaments might just be enough to push USA hockey in the right direction.
Through destruction comes rebirth and hopefully through re-evaluation comes a Team USA with the mindset of a 21st-century hockey team.