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THN at the World Junior Championship: Best laid plans go awry once again for Team USA

Members of Team Slovakia celebrate a goal scored during the third period of the quarterfinals against the USA at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Ottawa. Team Slovakia defeated Team USA 5-3. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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Members of Team Slovakia celebrate a goal scored during the third period of the quarterfinals against the USA at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Ottawa. Team Slovakia defeated Team USA 5-3. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

OTTAWA – When the good people of Ottawa watched USA go down in flames at the World Junior Championship once again, they must have felt as though they had seen this movie before.

Like the hometown Ottawa Senators, rarely has a program with so much promise accomplished so little. The 2009 US team made its contribution to a legacy of mediocrity in this event by losing 5-3 in the quarterfinal to Slovakia, assuring it would finish no higher than fifth in a tournament where the talent level drops off dramatically after the top four teams.

What makes it all so mind-boggling was this was once again a veteran American team loaded with top-notch NHL prospects. What makes it even more difficult to fathom is since 1996, when USA Hockey was riding high with a World Cup victory, it has hothoused its elite under-17 and under-18 prospects for the purpose of preparing them for international competitions like this one.

But the results simply have not been there for the Americans. They indeed have done well at the under-18 level with gold medals in 2002, 2005 and 2006, but for all the resources they pour into the program, they have been dismal at the WJC. In the history of the tournament, the Americans have won just five medals, with a gold, silver and two bronze coming since they established the U.S. National Team Development Program.
The program, however, can’t be faulted for the fact that goalie Thomas McCollum gagged it up big-time in this tournament, or that its best players went missing once the games got important. But there is absolutely no doubt there is a disconnect between the under-17 and under-18 programs and the WJC that USA Hockey can no longer ignore.

Of course, the Americans should never have been in this position. They should have been cooling their heels today while Canada played in this game. But the Americans completely lost their grip after taking a 3-0 lead on Canada New Year’s Eve. And it all started when, after scoring the third goal in the first period, fourth-liner Jimmy Hayes taunted the Canadian bench after he scored.

What a ridiculous thing to do by a team that has done nothing to earn a swagger in this tournament. So perhaps it has nothing to do with the U.S. system itself and more to do with the type of player it attracts.

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At least that’s what one NHL scout thinks. He opined that hockey in USA is such an elite sport that it attracts rich kids with a sense of entitlement who have difficulty fitting into a team dynamic. After watching Hayes do his thing and Eric Tangradi hit a Canadian player with his stick from the U.S. bench, he might have a point.

“The problem with these guys is that none of this is about winning a championship for USA,” the scout said. “It’s about furthering their careers. That’s all these kids care about. When these kids are with the U.S. NTDP, they’re in a good situation for a couple of years, but by the time they get here, all the bad influences have got them again.”

Others point to the fact that USA Hockey essentially selects its team in the summer and doesn’t have a final selection camp in December. It has always been maintained that’s because it conflicts with the availability of U.S. college players, but the fact remains that Canada has used U.S. college players for years and never had a problem with a player’s eligibility.

It’s difficult to point to one overriding factor, particularly with this year’s team. Although a number of scouts were scratching their heads over the exclusion of Cam Fowler from this year’s team, this squad seemed to have a good mix of major junior and college players and looked to be a formidable group.

But then everything imploded. Imagine going from a 3-0 lead against Canada to not being able to beat Slovakia.

“There never seems to be an cohesiveness to their team from year to year,” another scout said. “It’s almost like there’s a black cloud following them around.”

There are those who follow USA Hockey a lot more closely than I do who insist the whole organization is broken, that there is more political in-fighting in that body than at a Republican convention. There are always allegations of favoritism, cronyism and incompetence.

Not sure exactly what it is, but one thing is for sure. Things have to change for the Americans in this tournament. This is getting embarrassing.

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