Since its inception in 1963, the National Hockey League’s annual draft gave teams and fans the first looks at the game’s greatest stars. While prospects from different countries represented the draft, Canadians overpopulated the draft for many years – light years ahead of their neighbours to the south.
Between 1969 and 1973, the United States had only one of its own players drafted within the first two rounds.
After having one American-born player selection in the opening two rounds in both 1976 and 1977, the prospect pool in the United States progressively grew with each passing year. By 1983, the NHL Draft witnessed its first American taken with the first-overall pick when the Minnesota North Stars drafted New Brunswick, New Jersey-native Brian Lawton. That same year, USA Hockey saw seven of its players drafted within the opening two rounds – the highest number at the time. That number was equaled the following year but in 1986, 13 Americans were selected in the first two rounds and by 1988, fans witnessed the second American taken with the first-overall selection. Like in 1983, the Minnesota North Stars had the number-one pick, this time choosing Mike Modano who, unlike Lawton, went on to have a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career leading the since-relocated franchise to its first Stanley Cup crown in 1999.
Between 1983 and 1995, three Americans were drafted first-overall (Bryan Berard rounded out the list in ’95 when the Ottawa Senators selected him) and if you think those numbers were decent, you’d be right. However, by the time the new millennium hit, American players were being plucked from the draft in record numbers.
Since 2000, three more Americans were taken first-overall with two of them being taken as the top pick in consecutive years for the first time in the draft’s history. After the St. Louis Blues took Bloomington, Minnesota native Erik Johnson with the top pick in 2006, the Chicago Blackhawks made Buffalo native Patrick Kane their top pick in 2007. In addition, should Seth Jones, the projected number-one pick in this weekend’s draft be chosen first-overall then the United States would see four of its own taken as the top pick since 2000.
But there is plenty more to the draft than simply being selected first-overall.
Since 2000, 10 Americans have been selected in the Top 10 with eight of those players being chosen within the Top 5. Only defensemen Ryan Suter and Mike Komisarek fell out of the Top 5 as both were picked 7th overall in 2001 and 2003 respectively.
In 2003 (and then again in 2006), USA Hockey set a milestone as 18 Americans were drafted in the first two rounds of each draft. But that changed in 2007 when 21 US-born players were chosen in the opening two rounds. That number was matched in 2010.
Thanks to the emergence of teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings in the late-80’s and early-90’s, the NHL started seeing a number of prospects coming out of both markets. While NHLers Ryan Malone, R.J. Umberger and 2013 Calder nominee Andrew Saad were all born and raised in the Steel City, players such as Long Beach, California native Emerson Etem are quickly making names for themselves and while Los Angeles isn’t as well-represented in the NHL as Pittsburgh, the number of prospects coming out not only the City of Angels but the state of California overall has grown exponentially over the last few years – and the success of the Los Angeles Kings – as well as the presence of one Wayne Gretzky – has certainly played a decisive role in the Golden State Emergence, if you will.
At this spring’s NHL Combine in Toronto, 24 Americans were invited with each of them in the Top 80 in regards to their CSS Rank – stats that would have seemed like a mere pipe dream only 15 years ago.
Even behind the bench, the American contingent has become much stronger.
While Bill Stewart became the first US-born coach to win a Stanley Cup in 1938, it took 53 years for the next American head coach to win hockey’s Holiest prize as the late Bob Johnson led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first championship in 1991. Then, between 2004 and 2009, three different US-born coaches led their teams to Stanley Cup crowns: John Tortorella in 2004, Peter Laviolette in 2006 and Dan Bylsma in 2009.
On an international level, USA Hockey has had more to be proud of in recent years. While the United States had Olympic gold medal victories in 1960 and again in 1980, they only became consistently dominant over the last 20 years, winning the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 and three World Junior titles, including one this past January in Ufa, Russia. But if that weren’t enough, the United States have participated in the World Under-18 Championship since its inception in 1999 and have been nothing short of dominant.
In the 15 years of the tournament’s existence, the United States have won gold seven times and in the last 12 years, they finished on the podium 11 times. Their results alone from the Under-18 tournament should speak volumes of just how dominant the United States have become in hockey.
This Saturday, the eve of the 2013 NHL Draft, USA Hockey will be making an important announcement in regards to their 2014 Olympic team. 20 years ago, the United States had Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck for what seemed like every international tournament. These days, USA Hockey has a whole slew of bona fide netminders to choose from. If they elect not to go with 2010 Olympic starter Ryan Miller, then they can go with 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, or even 2011 Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas – and that’s only mentioning a few.
While the game of hockey had been dominated by the former Soviet Union and Canada for decades, hockey fans from all over the world can truly embrace the notion that this great sport is truly international.
While Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic have all been successful mainstays in international play, countries like Germany, Belarus and especially Switzerland have really made a name for themselves in recent years. Of course, when speaking of international success in hockey, I would be grossly remiss if I failed to mention the United States who have not only proven that they belong on the same ice surface as Canada or Russia but that they can beat them (or any country) on any given day.
As a Canadian, it is admittedly disappointing when Team USA defeats Team Canada but on a more significant level, it is great to see our American brethren succeed because quite frankly, the United States deserves just as much success in hockey as anyone else – and if you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers.
For a league so fixated on selling the game to fans in the United States, the National Hockey League certainly has to be gung ho about the growing number of American prospects being drafted with each passing year and personally, I love it.
While I wouldn’t mind seeing another Canadian-based franchise or two, the representation of the United States not only in the NHL but in the minor and junior ranks is something USA Hockey should be proud of.
While Massachusetts and Minnesota still dominate the American pipeline, Michigan and New York have been able to enjoy stronger representation as well as states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Even states like New Hampshire, Vermont and North Dakota are coming out of the woodwork while states like Iowa, California, even Arizona, Texas and Florida are all beginning to make names for themselves. You may laugh but don’t be surprised to see prospects from Atlanta or Nashville being drafted within the next decade.
For those who complain about a lack of interest in hockey in the United States shouldn’t believe as much after reading this.
At the 2013 NHL Draft this weekend in Newark, New Jersey, the United States will be well-represented and that representation will only grow stronger with each passing year.
Like the colours of the game’s ice surface, hockey works best when it’s painted red, white and blue – and it is simply illogical to play the game without it.