2016 -
Team USA headed down correct path: Winning worlds must be important
23.05.2016. Allen, Kevin; kmallen@usatoday.com USA TODAY Sports

 When U.S. captain Matt Hendricks met with teammates after a humbling 7-2 loss to the Russians in the bronze medal game of hockey's world championships Sunday, he offered them a surprising assessment.

"What I said to guys in the room was that our resiliency and work ethic was the best, bar none, of any team I've been on," the Edmonton Oilers forward told USA TODAY Sports via cellphone from Moscow. "From our top-minute guys to our bottom-minute guys, the work ethic and belief that we had the opportunity to win this tournament was very, very high. There was never any doubts. We were a close team. I was very proud of everyone on the team."

He was being completely honest. The fourth-place finish was noteworthy, probably better than what was expected, given the Americans had the youngest team in the tournament and the youngest team they had sent to the tournament in recent years.

America's most productive forwards were Auston Matthews, 18, and Dylan Larkin, 19, and they were competing against a Russian team that boasted stars including Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Artemi Panarin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

"Early in the tournament, (the team's inexperience) was definitely the elephant in the room," Hendricks said. "As the tournament progressed, we cleaned up a lot of those areas. But at the end of the day, it did affect us."

This U.S. team played two strong games against the Czech Republic and Canada in the medal round and then couldn't raise its level enough against Russia.

"We didn't have enough today for our team to play the way we needed to play to have success," U.S. coach John Hynes (New Jersey Devils) said.

The truth is the Americans needed more NHL veterans, and that speaks to the continuing struggle USA Hockey has with players declining invitations to play in the world championships.

European teams have a better record of recruiting top players. Ovechkin has played 11 times. Jaromir Jagr has been a regular for the Czech Republic. European players view the world championships with reverence because much of their country's hockey history centers on the tournament.

At times, Canada has had trouble coaxing players to join, but stars have shown up in recent years. In 2015, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Jason Spezza, Jordan Eberle and Brent Burns helped Canada win gold. This year, Corey Perry, Taylor Hall, Brad Marchand and Connor McDavid played. Canada's success in this tournament seems to have raised awareness and made playing in the world championships more desirable.

The USA hasn't won the senior world championships tournament since 1933. The Americans have been more competitive in recent years, but that's because they have had passionate players perform at their best.

The Americans would be more competitive if they had more veterans accepting invitations to play. With the way the youngsters played in Moscow, if the USA would have had one veteran defenseman, a scorer and one of its accomplished goalies, it could have competed for a gold medal.

Some players have legitimate reasons for not playing, especially those with expiring contracts or injuries. But too many decline because the world championships isn't as important to them as the Olympics or the World Cup.

Maybe it would help if USA Hockey asked members of American's greatest generation to recruit players. Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, Mike Modano and Brian Leetch, among others, all had overwhelming pride in wearing a U.S. jersey. Maybe the best chance USA Hockey has of receiving a higher participation rate from veterans will come from the pride the next generation of Americans seems to have.

When Crosby played for the gold medal-winning Canadian team, the rumor was the players orchestrated the stacked roster. It was an I-will-play-if-you-play chain reaction.

It's not hard to envision players such as Larkin or Matthews involved in something similar someday. Depending on how their NHL teams are doing in the playoffs, it's not unthinkable that Larkin would dial Jack Eichel or Matthews, and say, "Why don't we head over to Europe and see if we can win a world championship? You call Noah Hanifin and I will call Zach Werenski, and let's get this done."

It's a problem that passionate U.S. players can fix by themselves. It's a matter of convincing other Americans that being a world champion is a title worth having. 

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