From the day preliminary rosters were announced, many smartly noted that the United States’ entry into the World Cup of Hockey just wasn’t very good.
It was a team designed to stop Canada, modeled after the 1996 American iteration that beat Canada three out of four times they played, and captured the United States’ first and only win in a best-on-best tournament. Here’s what General Manager Dean Lombardi told ESPN ahead of the tournament:
Using '96 as a model, it's no different than putting together an NHL team. We made it very clear -- all the work I did prior to it, going through it last August in those preliminary meetings -- that this had to be about team and identity.
As we know, it failed miserably.
Based on the roster Lombardi built and the coach he hired, you’d think that ‘96 team was built on grit and tenacity, right? Well, Lombardi got the wrong message.
Yes, the United States clinched the tournament in game in which they were outshot 37-25, and Mike Richter famously stopped 35 of 37 shots he faced. But the ‘96 team was among the best offensive teams at the World Cup that year.
The Americans scored 32 goals in seven games, including a tournament-high 19 in pool play. They scored five goals against Canada in each of their three wins. We don’t have possession numbers dating back that long, the United States was outshot in just two of their six tournament wins, and in one win over Russia, they held a 5-1 lead going into the third period.
The roster was built to score goals. Yes, they didn’t have to contend with the existence of an under-23 team poaching some of their top talents, but nine Americans finished in the top 50 in scoring that year. Eight were on the United States’ World Cup roster.
This year, seven Americans finished in the top 50. The United States took just four, as one was not eligible (Johnny Gaudreau) and two were left off of the roster entirely (Kyle Okposo and Phil Kessel).
Don’t believe me? Then listen to how Ron Wilson, the ‘96 team’s head coach, described his team’s strengths ahead of the tournament (emphasis my own):
Does that sound anything like a team that left players who fit those descriptions, like players who Okposo, Keith Yandle, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Faulk at home in place of Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, and Matt Niskanen? It shouldn’t.
In building this roster, Dean Lombardi and the USA Hockey brain trust chased a narrative that has grown larger than the actual on-ice product that won the tournament, just as the narrative has with the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team.
The Americans were undoubtedly overmatched in their miraculous win over the Soviet Union. But, the team scored the third-most goals in Herb Brooks’ Soviet-influenced system that emphasized skill and creativity. Even though they weren’t professionals like the Soviets essentially were, all but two American skaters (Mike Ramsey and Phil Verchota) had posted at least one point-per-game season in college.
For a GM who loves history so much he gave his Kings players homework on World War II, Lombardi could have afforded to read up on it a little more. It’s not wise to build a team based on the past as the game moves ahead, and doubly not so if you learn from the wrong lessons, and not the ones that actually endure. Going forward, USA Hockey needs to learn from its mistakes in this tournament, and what truly made previous teams successful.
Otherwise? They will need a miracle off of the ice before they can get one on it.