SUN Hockey Pool

Rise of U.S. talent suits NHL just fine

ERIN NICKS -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

The thought of giving Americans their due when it comes to hockey isn't new, but when talk begins to surface of them excelling in important international tournaments, Canadians get a look on their faces like they've just kissed Darcy Tucker while sporting lemon-flavoured lip gloss.

And while the Americans may not be a threat on every international stage yet, their presence has been felt at other tournaments, including this year's world juniors -- a competition in which Canada is perpetually expected to dominate.

Could this grassroots movement within the U.S. to nurture hockey talent be perceived as a bad thing?

Not if you consider the health and future of the NHL as a priority.

Hockey may be a Canadian game, and the NHL may be where the elite come to play our sport, but that doesn't change the fact that 80% of the league's teams reside in U.S. cities. The league has altered its play and marketing strategy to make the game more palatable and endearing to the masses.

Ultimately, it could be suggested that the changes were required to ensnare a new American audience, but there was nothing about the new approach that blatantly screamed, "Hey America -- here's something that you may be interested in."

What catches an American's interest more than patriotism? Do you remember the second-biggest story of this year's draft?

The 2005 NHL entry draft will always be remembered as the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes. But it's also important to recall that eight U.S.-born players were taken in the first round -- a record.

Six of those eight are situated on the current Team USA world junior roster, including Senators top pick Brian Lee.

The achievement at the time, thankfully, did not go unrecognized, as it was a worthy accomplishment. And perhaps it had something to do with the draft taking place on our own doorstep, but one could sense a change in the air that had nothing to do with the NHL renaissance.

During the media interviews, the American kids proved to be the most engaging. The majority portrayed themselves as confident, articulate and thoughtful in one-on-one discussions, with very few reaches into the notorious bag of hockey cliches. Combine this with our newfound knowledge of how the NHL will be played, and recognize that the Americans will make a smooth transition into the professional league.

USA Hockey is being built for the NHL and U.S. support, both on and off the ice.

How could this possibly be a bad thing?

Now more than ever before, American hockey fans have been given the opportunity to witness the growth of their talent on their own soil. Sixteen out of 22 players from Team USA's world junior squad play for NCAA colleges. The options are growing for American players to not only stay within the U.S. to play a sport they love, but to also gain a post-secondary education in the process.

With the progression of NCAA hockey comes a general interest in the sport that the NHL could benefit from, as the players eventually graduate from amateur into professional play.

In spite of the Miracle on Ice, there has never been such a blatantly obvious surge by the U.S. to match Canadian talent. It may, and should be perceived as threatening in regards to international play, but legitimate rivalries lead to memorable tournaments.

In respect to the NHL, it should be regarded as a truly positive development.

The use of American patriotism to sell the Canadian sport of hockey just may be the massive marketing angle the NHL has been searching for.

MAKE SOME NOISE: I've seen a gradual improvement in behaviour at home games and Senators fans are to be congratulated for their effort. However, the fans seated in section 223 during Monday's game vs. the Rangers should feel free to explore the available real estate in my neighbourhood. Everyone within my vicinity was so freakishly quiet that I figured you would all make fantastic neighbours. My boyfriend, ever the keen observer (and possibly the city's only Chargers fan), offered this: "They're acting as if they're having sex in an area adjacent to their parents' bedroom -- they must be having a good time, but there's no audible way to tell."

CZECH IT OUT: Has anyone asked Dominik Hasek what he thinks of the Team 1200's Christmas song parody? It's amusing, and hopefully Dom doesn't mind being made to sound like the Czech Republic's version of Rain Man.

erinnicks@yahoo.ca


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