Despite lockout, American hockey surges forward
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Phil Housley never thought he'd see kids playing hockey in non-traditional American cities when he was whirling around a rink as a teenager in his home state of Minnesota. He's certain now the game hasn't reached its peak in his native country.
When Housley was drafted out of high school by the Buffalo Sabres in 1982 (No. 6 overall), the NHL was dominated by Canadian-born players. More than 30 years later, the game has gone global, with the United States now supplying close to 25 percent of the league's player pool.
"I have to credit the 1980 Olympic team,'' Housley said of the surge in Americans playing hockey. "That team opened the door for not only me but for many other Americans. Now, we've gotten first overall picks, and we have way more depth when it comes to the World Championships at the end of the year for the players that don't make the (NHL) playoffs. That's unlike the early 80's, when it was like, `Well, who are we gonna get?'''
Housley and Rob McClanahan, a member of that 1980 USA team that upset the Soviet Union en route to an improbable gold medal, will be behind the bench when 40 of the top American prospects eligible for the 2013 NHL draft meet in the inaugural USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Saturday in Buffalo.
Now, if they can only get the lockout situation figured out. While these prospects dwelled in Buffalo on Thursday, the league announced the cancellation of the entire preseason schedule.
The prospects game will carry on, regardless, and it is similar to the one played in Canada every year. It will showcase a diversified American talent base that will represent 13 different states. That, of course, is a far cry from when Housley and McClanahan played as youngsters. American hockey thrived in just a handful of states back then, and was way out of the limelight.
"It was a challenge for many of us to play in the NHL because there was a barrier to entry that hadn't been broken down until we were able to beat the Russians and win the gold,'' McClanahan said. "Some of the great players in USA Hockey never got a chance to play in the NHL. It was a tough time back then. Understandably so, Canadians wanted to protect what they had, and they had some phenomenal hockey players. They made it very, very challenging for us to break through. But with our (Olympic) success, the doors opened and it's been fun to see the development of all these players.''
And as that goes on, fans of the NHL sit and wait. The two sides have scheduled talks on Friday in New York, although they are on secondary economic issues as opposed to the core of the dispute, which is how to split more than $3 billion in annual revenue.
So, if nothing else, the Buffalo stage is grand for any prospect to take this weekend. One such player - set to be on display Saturday - might be defenseman Seth Jones, who could wind up as the top player selected in 2013. Jones was born in a suburb of Dallas, Texas while his father, Popeye, played basketball for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks in 1994. Seth's birthday also came 363 days after the Dallas Stars made their NHL debut against the Detroit Red Wings following their move from Minneapolis.
That's the sort of diversity that USA Hockey wants to maintain, and this inaugural prospects game is something the organization thinks can become a prestigious event.
"We look at this game as just another sign of USA Hockey's development and also something players aspire to,'' Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, said. "I think our sellers are going to be the players on the ice. When they go back, we want them to have a good experience, which I know they're going to have. But I want the kid from the locker room sitting next to him that's draft eligible the following year to say, `Geez, I want to make it to that game.'''
That would be a game Housley and McClanahan never dreamed of four decades ago.