Developing Elite U.S. Hockey Players

Last November, John Buccigross at ESPN wrote a blog about the development of elite level U.S. players and how that begins at the youth level. Over the last decade or so, the number of American born players in the NHL has steadily climbed to a very respectable 20 percent. And it’s not just the traditional markets being represented in that percentage either. On opening night of the 2010-11 NHL season, 25 out of the 50 states were represented by American players. According to Bucci’s article, with numbers provided by USA Hockey, the United States is second only to Canada in the number of registered youth players. So, why aren’t there more elite level American players in the NHL? There are an abundant amount of supremely talented American forwards in the game today with the likes of Kane, Kessel, Kessler, Parise and Ryan. However, I sometimes find myself asking where is our Crosby, Ovechkin, or even a Sedin? Where is that “league leading in all offensive categories” superstar? The last American born player to have a 100 point season was Doug Weight in 1995-96. Even the all-time leading scorer of U.S. born players, Mike Modano, has never had a 100 point season. I would argue that the most talented American ever to lace them up was Pat LaFontaine and his career was cut relatively short due to head injuries. If participation rates are increasing in the youth leagues and the number of American born players continues to increase in the NHL, then why aren’t there more elite U.S. players?

USA Hockey’s Kenny Rausch explained some of the possibilities for this in a Q and A with Bucci in his blog. Though the number of U.S. kids playing hockey is growing, retention rates for them are poor. Rausch stated that close to 60 percent of kids stop playing hockey by the age of 14. It seems to me that we have too many kids focused on strenuous game situations, instead of getting creative and building skills in a “pond hockey” like atmosphere. Spending the majority of ice time in the confines of a rink under the continuous discipline of an enraged coach’s whistle isn’t going to help foster skill and natural puck handling tendencies in kids. A free mind and excitement breed creativity. However, Rausch explains to Bucci that USA Hockey has already begun to implement new creative ideas and models into the youth game, with the goal being “More, Better, Longer”. The new generation of kids coming through the ranks using this new American Development Model (ADM) designed to hone kid’s skills and keep them interested in continuing to play the game could be a great solution to past deficiencies. Plus, the ADM is backed monetarily by the NHL to help develop elite level U.S. players for the NHL, so that doesn’t hurt either. The ADM initiative along with the continued success of the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) and its growing cast of NHL alum, only further helps the cause. As the number of American players in the NHL continues to grow, one or more of those players may end up being that special one. Somewhere out in one of the 50 states, a kid is sharpening his skills flying around the frozen rink, or wheeling around the hot black asphalt of a street. He/she could be the one…

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