There have been plenty of outstanding American hockey players, but none who've been the undisputed face of the NHL. Imagine what would happen if, say, a Jack Eichel became that guy.
The United States has produced some wonderful players over the years, legitimate Hall-of-Fame-caliber superstars who have earned honored member status. What that nation can’t boast, however, is an NHL torch-carrier. In the modern era, the United States has failed to develop an undisputed face of the league in the Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux/
Sidney Crosby/Bobby Orr/Maurice Richard/you-get-the-picture mold. The only American to win the Hart Trophy in the modern era was Brett Hull (a native of Canada) in 1991. The Golden Brett is one of the greatest pure goal-scorers of all-time, but even in the season he won the league’s MVP award, he finished 32 points behind Gretzky in the Art Ross Trophy race.
There was an uptick in high-end Yanks in the late 1980s and ‘90s, led by studs such as Hull, Mike Modano, Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick, but none who could make the undisputed, poster boy claim. Then came a bit of a dry spell. The numbers slightly receded and the cream at the top became diluted. Check out the active American scorers, as screen capped from QuantHockey, for proof. Solid veterans
David Legwand and
Jason Pominville top the leaderboard.
More recently, times have been sunnier.
James Van Riemsdyk and
Phil Kessel are among the league’s brightest stars. None are the face of hockey, but the escalation is evident. Which brings us to
Jack Eichel. The Boston University prospect, who’s running neck-and-neck with
Connor McDavid for No. 1 placement at the 2015 NHL draft, has the skill set to be a special NHLer. Naturally, he has a long way to go before we can even begin to judge that, but it’s worth keeping tabs on. Why does this matter? Hockey, despite its growth, is still a distant cousin among American sports. This notion was reinforced when the NBA recently announced its nine-year, $24-billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT. That’s an average of $2.6 billion per season. The corresponding NHL contracts with NBC and Sportsnet are worth an average of $630 million per. In the eyes of the majority, it’s Canada’s game. Sometimes it’s Sweden’s game, it used to be Russia’s game, and occasionally those pesky Finns borrow it. It’s something U.S. is very good at, but there’s no urgency, not to the same level as the aforementioned, to be the best. It’s a nice-to-have. But if (when) a Gretzky or Crosby or Lemieux or Richard emerges from the home of the brave, it could be a turning point. Imagine a Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Joe Montana or Peyton Manning on skates. Not just very good players, but icons who transcend their sport with pervasive reach. I visited a transplanted Canadian recently who now lives deep in the heart of the American South. She insisted, and I believe her, that she’d never heard of Sidney Crosby. I’ve got a shiny, lucky loonie that says if ‘The Kid’ was born in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., instead of Cole Harbour, N.S., that wouldn’t be the case.