What's the future of USA Hockey?

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The USA Hockey sign on the side of the office building is visible from nearby Interstate 25. More subtle is the address that recognizes pioneering tradition and class: The headquarters of the sport's national governing body is on Bob Johnson Drive, and sometime soon, another nearby street could be rechristened Herb Brooks Boulevard.

In the World Arena practically adjacent to the office building, 39 candidates for the 2006 Olympic team went through workouts this week, and those selected will be the highest-profile representatives of an organization that influences the playing experience from the first time young Americans pick up sticks.

Dave Ogrean understands the legacy.

He has been on the job as USA Hockey's executive director for just over a month, yet it's his second stint in the job, and even the first followed a climb through the ranks of the organization that moved to Colorado Springs as part of a 1970s convergence of many sports' national governing bodies near the base of Pikes Peak.

Ogrean held the executive director's position from 1993 to 1999, and he has returned to succeed Doug Palazzari, who resigned suddenly earlier this year. As with Hockey Canada or any other country's hockey fiefdom, the leader has to be visionary, thinking both short and long term, understanding that the sport can be as much about the boys and girls who are enriched by a playing experience that ends before they have their driver's licenses as it is about NHL players eagerly seeking the opportunity to represent their nations in international competition.

"This is a sport and an organization and a community that I realized was in my blood," said Ogrean, who most recently was executive director of USA Football, from 2002 to 2005. "This is where I was happiest, and I think I was at my best."

As Ogrean spoke at the Ice Hall rinks connected to the World Arena, the NHL players were practicing under the direction of Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette. Much of the conversation, of course, had been about the NHL's return after the dark season, and one of the overlooked issues in all of this has been the potential fallout damage to the sport in the United States. Fact was, the repeated throwaway lines about hockey's being gone last season were ignorant -- or at least lazy oversimplification. The NHL is not the sport itself, and the sport itself went on, everywhere from unlikely backwater homes of minor-league pro franchises to college hockey to youth leagues to drop-in lunch games and beer leagues. But there also was no doubt that the NHL darkness threw a shadow at least across the image of the sport from coast to coast. And if that leads to lesser participation or fewer sign-ups in the sport -- whether in the Boston suburbs or in Santa Barbara, Calif. -- that could be damaging.

"There hasn't been a negative effect that we've seen," Ogrean said. "But those things can kind of happen as an echo effect. We may know better about whether there is any damage a year from now if registration numbers decline.

"The last couple of years, the growth has been very, very modest, only 2 percent each year. But when you reach a certain critical mass, you're just not going to see those 10 to 15 percent jumps. We went through quite a period of building new rinks in the 1990s when the NHL expanded and minor-league hockey boomed with gusto in places where the sport hadn't been before. That kind of growth wasn't going to continue forever. We are very much a facilities-dependent sport, so while it continues to grow now, it grows in smaller steps. But no matter what, we're very committed to working within our own organization and with the National Hockey League in all of the other aspects of the game.

"I recognize that we sometimes have a skewed view of the world and not everybody walking down the street cares, but I think there is an enthusiasm for the game. And I think that the rules changes that the NHL is committed to means that this is not just a run-of-the-mill return. Baseball didn't make big changes after its last prolonged stoppage. I think there has been some re-engineering of the game that is going to help us all."

While the reviews have been mixed for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's overseeing of an expansion to 30 franchises -- and "mixed" might be putting it nicely -- the fact is, it has been a boon for the sport itself.

"There's no question we benefit from drafting in the wake of expansion," Ogrean said. "Gary Bettman has this vision of creating a national footprint for the NHL to help them get a network television contract and so forth. That's helped create the interest for having so many minor-league teams in Florida and Texas, and it all trickles down to benefit us."

So what's next?

"There's a phrase that rolls off a lot of people's tongues: 'Bigger and better,'" Ogrean said. "I think that's inverted. Let's focus on the 'better.' Let's make sure we have the best-run programs and leagues and associations. Let's have the best coaching education program we can. We need to have programs to develop the infrastructure of this sport, so kids and families have a real positive experience when they come to the games. If you do that, the 'bigger' is going to happen."

The USA's Miracle at Lake Placid certainly helped the game -- even today, NHL players not even born when it happened cite it as some sort of spiritual lure -- and the Americans' 1996 World Cup victory was billed as a potential boon. The silver medal at Salt Lake City was surprisingly underplayed and overlooked. Now it seems likely that only a gold medal performance at Turin in what amounts to an NHL intramural tournament would give USA Hockey -- and USA hockey – a major shot in the arm.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."