There was a certain bit of irony to the proceedings yesterday, as NBC did their best to deify Herb Brooks during the lead-up to the big game between the United States and Canada with a special on the 1980 gold medal, and commentators tried to force comparisons between the current US squad and the 1980 Olympic squad. If anything, yesterday was perhaps the crowning moment for the National Team Development Program, a program Brooks was vehemently against. and the US prevailing was anything but a miracle. Call it the anti-Miracle.
Among the goals of the NTDP when it was created in 1996 was developing players for the highest level of hockey, including potentially grooming players to play on the US Olympic team. If I recall correctly, the 2010 Olympics were even thrown out as a potential long-term goal. The program has faced more than its fair share of criticism over the past 14 years. Even I have written about my skepticism of the NTDP creating a "trickle down effect" to the rest of hockey. But yesterday, 8 alums of the NTDP program, representing the next generation of USA Hockey, led the US to victory over the biggest hockey country in the world, with a huge audience watching. That audience will likely only grow as the tournament continues on, and it's probably not a stretch to say that more than a few new hockey players will come from the exposure.
It's maybe a stretch to draw too direct a line between the NTDP and the success the US has had so far in the Olympics. The players are well removed from their time in Ann Arbor, and critics will still say talents like Erik Johnson or Pat Kane would have been in Vancouver regardless of where they played growing up.
But the NTDP deserves a lot of credit for changing USA Hockey's place in the realm of international hockey. In 2000, the program took home their first IIHF gold medal since 1980 at the World U18 championships. Two years later, an American team that featured current US Olympians Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Suter, and Dustin Brown, took home their first ever gold medal at the U20 World Junior Championships.
And more than just results, they've changed the mindset of American international hockey. Ryan Kesler hates Canada. Why? Because there's been an expectation instilled in kids like him that have come up through the NTDP program. An expectation that the US doesn't just show up at international tournaments to participate, but to win. And being the best in hockey more often than not means going through Canada, resulting in a fantastic rivalry on the international stage. For as exciting as yesterday was, you can tell who the hockey posers are if they rate yesterday's game above any of the last three match-ups between the US and Canada in the World Juniors.
There's still a lot of hockey left to be played, and things could fall off the tracks quickly for the US, but in the very least, they've already proven that their place among the world's hockey elite is far from a miracle. They may not have the raw talent of a Canada or Russia, but USA Hockey has created a system that has helped produce a team of players that are just as good as any nation in the world.