USA hockey now good as gold

David Backes celebrates with Ryan Callahan after scoring in the third period of Team USA's 5-1 victory over Slovenia Sunday. (Martin Rose/Getty Images)

The often incoherent, grammatically challenged ramblings of a man who has watched too much sports, listened to too much music and devoured too many club sandwiches.

Truly impressive effort by Team USA at the Olympics so far, all of which makes you wonder why there would be any sense of a big upset if the red, white and blue came home with a gold medal.

It was a marvelous weekend for the good guys; they wrote a storybook finish with T.J. Oshie’s shootout success to beat the Russians on Saturday morning, and on Sunday morning they made Slovenia into a personal brunch, hammering them, 5-1.

All that work done, they move into quarterfinals with an eye on the medal round.

The fact of the matter is that there is such a slim difference in talent among the elite teams in this tournament that the difference between hoisting gold and empty hands can be as slim as a single goal, a bizarre bounce, or a miracle save. But the days of Miracles on Ice are gone, and the guys who skate around in red, white and blue are every bit the same quality as the guys from Russia, Sweden, Finland and yes, even Canada.

The Yanks made their statement in this tourney in the very first game when a surprisingly shoddy Slovakian team got blown away.  Two decades removed from the political split that turned one machine into two, both the Slovaks -- who manned up yesterday in a shootout loss against the Russians -- and the Czechs appear to be stuck in a catch-up mode in terms of development.


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The Russians? A lot of individual talent, but they hardly look gold-medal worthy as a team. Maybe they can’t handle the pressure, or maybe they just aren’t as well schooled. They can still get it together, as Canada did in 2010 on home ice, but they look like strangers on the ice.

In the meantime, the United States continues to improve in terms of talent and the development of talent.  Watch the face offs in each game, where the US is always tough to beat cleanly, and you will witness the value of stressing small components of the game at every level. The US programs from the ground up to the national teams are blessed with talented coaches, and most importantly, supportive families.

It is no small commitment to have a son or daughter play hockey. The simple fact of the matter is that – despite the weather around here lately – ice surfaces are not a natural occurrence. You have to pay for ice, and you have to travel to get to an ice surface.

You cannot be late for practice, because you only have so much time on the ice. And once you get there, you have to battle to get your fair amount of ice time. In other words, you gave to really want to play, you have to really love to play, and you had better be blessed with a family that can make sure it happens.

Still, the sport has blossomed from a local entity in pockets such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, into a national program, with California as a growing hot bed of talent. Locally, there are superior development programs run by Comcast, and feeder systems of coaching in places such as Ice Works in Aston, Pa., and many other arenas.

In very little time, be assured that Penn State will put together a winning Division 1 program with local talent in its spectacular Pegula Arena. More immediately, in early April the Frozen Four will be played in Philadelphia, and it is likely one of the featured players will be Boston College’s Johnny Guardia, who was raised and trained in a great system in South Jersey.

Gaudreau will be a candidate to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player in the nation, and wouldn’t that be something as Hobey Baker played his college hockey locally at Princeton, was born in Bala Cynwyd, and is buried there at West Laurel Hill Cemetery?

Somehow, much like the sport’s growing appeal in the region, the legacy of Baker as one of Philadelphia’s largest heroes, has been lost. Baker was also a war hero, leading a squadron of planes painted black and orange for Princeton in World War 1, and died after crashing a test plane – first refusing to allow any of his squadron to test it, and doing it himself.

There is a history of hockey in the area that precedes the Flyers, but no doubt the Flyers have helped turned the Philadelphia region into another one of the nation’s growing hockey hotbeds. Every year in college hockey it seems a local kid makes a huge impression, and the impact will only get greater.

One of America’s great hockey heroes is Mike Eruzione, a Boston product who scored the huge goal to beat the Soviets in 1980, but before that he was a star at Boston University.  Almost three decades later in 2009, it was Colby Cohen, from Villanova, Pa., who scored maybe the biggest goal in BU history to win a National Championship in overtime, and cap the biggest comeback in NCAA playoff history.

Bravo for Team USA as it heads into the medal round with a full head of steam, but don’t talk about miracles. The Americans don’t have to walk on water to produce miracles any more; they just have to skate on it to win games.

Nuf Ced

Al Morganti is a member of the WIP Morning Show (94.1 FM) weekday mornings from 5:30 til 10 and a hockey analyst for Comcast SportsNet. His twitter handle is @nufced.