Next week is Hockey Week Across America, beginning with Hockey Day In America on Sunday, Feb. 18.
This week includes one of my favorite annual rites: "Wear Your Favorite Jersey Day," in which fans are encouraged to wear their hockey jerseys to work or school or perhaps around the house, with or without pants. No one does, which is a shame, because it's a really easy way to figure out who the cool people are at your office. As well as the weirdos, one imagines. Yes, I'm talking to you, guy with the Patrick Kaleta Buffa-slug sweater.
In honor of Hockey Week Across America, we decided to briefly trade in our trademark snark and cynicism for the joys of jingoism. Here are 10 awesome things about the current state of hockey in these United States of America:
1. Overall Increase In Skill. I've said it before, but the 1980 Miracle On Ice was the best and worst thing to happen for American hockey. Yes, it put the United States on the map, except that map was crammed inside of a lunch pail resting next to a hard hat. The image of "American-born players as blue-collar talents" has thrived for decades, and it's affected everything from how we build international tournament teams to which men's players we choose to develop. That's changed in a major way with the emergence of players like Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Clayton Keller and Seth Jones. It'll continue to change with Jack and Quinn Hughes, and with several players in this year's draft. The only thing that's held the U.S. back from world hockey domination is getting our best athletes to play hockey and bring their creativity and athleticism to the sport. The increase in overall skill, and especially superstar abilities, shows we're getting there.
2. We're Making Centers Again. Matthews is a center. So is Eichel. And Dylan Larkin, Keller (technically) and Jack Hughes (probably). This is a rather incredible development when you consider the tremendous gap between the high point for the existence of American pivots -- when Pat LaFontaine, Jeremy Roenick and Mike Modano roamed the earth -- through the 2014 Olympics that saw a good-not-great group of Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan, Ryan Kesler and Paul Stastny, among others.
In Matthews and Eichel alone, the Americans have taken a Herculean leap forward in quality of centers, especially when you see what Canada can throw at you in a tournament down the middle. Now we just have to get back to the Olympics to prove it ...
3. Auston Matthews. One thing we didn't get into in my piece this week on Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs and his new contract was how he's poised to be a megastar. He's going to be a point-per-game player for the majority of his career. He's going to eventually become the first Maple Leafs player to hoist the Stanley Cup since 1967, because Toronto's going to win it at least once in the next decade and Matthews is going to be their captain. And after talking with his agent, Judd Moldaver, this week, that "M. Bison jacket" photoshoot is just a taste of what's to come for him as a star athlete with crossover appeal. The Mexican-American kid challenges for scoring titles as he leads the Chicago Cubs of hockey to a championship and also dances in "The Nutcracker" ... yeah, I think that's marketable.
4. The Minnesota All-Hockey Hair Team.
It's already out...— Chris Long (@ChrisLongKSTP) March 11, 2018
...the 2018 State Hockey Tournament All-Hockey Hair Team!https://t.co/4VeuQQYXvh
One of the singular joys of the hockey calendar, if not for the sick salads and greasy flows than for the tremendously awkward presentation of them.
5. The USWNT. It started with the nation's top women's players fighting for equality from USA Hockey in pay and promotion, and winning the battle. Then they beat Canada. They FINALLY beat Canada. Now, it's not that Team USA had never beaten Canada. On the contrary: They won seven of the past eight IIHF world championships against them. They just couldn't beat them for Olympic gold, often losing in soul-crushing ways. So it was delicious when Jocelyne Lamoureux crushed their collective souls before Maddie Rooney won the tournament in the shootout. Tears, dripping down like maple syrup into a plate of poutine. In the ensuing months, we've had more #OneLeague talk for women's hockey, Kendall Coyne participating in the fastest-skater event at the All-Star Game, and the U.S. women and Canada going on a higher-profile barnstorming exhibition tour. I love this team, I love these players and I love that they pair gold with red, white and blue as often as they do.
6. Participation Numbers Are Up. There are hard numbers that this is the case: In the 2017-18 season, participation in hockey was up 1.26 percent nationwide, while participation in women's and girls hockey was up 4.65 percent, with big gains in the 8-and-under level. There's also ancillary evidence: From big gestures like the "learn to play" movements in places like Las Vegas to the Devils and Riveters partnering on clinics to even those videos of little girls putting on skates for the first time after watching Coyne at the All-Star Game, there's a lot to be excited about. But it goes beyond that, all the way to the NHL. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 28 percent of the players who have appeared in the NHL this season were born in the U.S. Five years ago that percentage was 24.4. Weighed by number of games played, it's 27.2 percent this season and 23.0 percent in 2013-14. And this is before any Hugheses made the show!
7. The Hughes Family. Quinn, Jack and Luke Hughes were profiled here by our own Chris Peters, and it's certainly worth your time. Jack is likely the first overall pick in this summer's draft. Quinn is going to have a Niedermayer-esque impact for the Vancouver Canucks. Luke might be the best skater of the three. Please make more Hugheses, Hughes family.
8. Zach Parise. Given the state of the State of Hockey's NHL team these days, the season that Parise has had thus far hasn't gotten its proper due. He had back surgery in October 2017, worked hard to come back from it and is currently having his most productive offensive season since 2010 at age 34. Just a fantastic story for one of the players who's worn the Team USA jersey proudest through the years.
9. Arizona State Hockey. Forget for a moment that their top scorer, Johnny Walker, has led the NCAA in goals, and is also named Johnny Walker. The rise of USA as a Division I hockey contender has been inspiring and extraordinary. As scribe Jack Harris wrote: "This year, it might seem like they're playing with house money -- that a potential at-large bid would just be an added bonus to the progress already made. But the program once questioned by so many now appears to belong at college hockey's high-rollers' table. After some painful early seasons, ASU might finally be set up to hit the jackpot."
10. Nashville and Las Vegas. Remember when Nashville was considered a franchise on shaky footing, that might as well skate off to Hamilton, Ontario, rather than stick it out in Music City? Remember how Las Vegas was seen as another potential mistake in the desert and a non-traditional market that couldn't conjure up enough fans for an NHL base? Remember how both markets successfully redefined the entertainment experience of attending a pro hockey game, with a party that extended out from their arenas? Or how they created the framework for cultivating new fans in "non-traditional markets?" Or how hockey writers secretly hope for either of these teams to return to the Stanley Cup Final in perpetuity because they have an expense account?
Hockey, gamblin' and honky tonkin'. What's more American than that?
The Week in Gritty
The Flyers' furry nightmare decided to lend his support to another professional team from Philadelphia: The Fusion of the Overwatch League.
- IMT|VAL|MIBR Steve Forton (@SteveOnSports) February 15, 2019
This naturally got us thinking about what classic video game would best fit Gritty. And while watching Gritty's head replace Clyde the orange ghost in Pac-Man would seem like a natural flex, he's much more at home tormenting others while acting like he's above the fray. Hence, the only answer is: Gritty Kong.
Meanwhile, Flyers star Claude Giroux announced that he and his wife are expecting a child. Gritty, being uncomfortably obsessed with the Flyers captain, is apparently also expecting his child:
- Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) February 14, 2019
Can't wait until they recreate the scene with Sonny Corleone at the toll booth, except with T-shirt cannons.
I Don't Care That It Didn't Happen, It Has To Be True
Coach Ken Hitchcock has been salty about the Edmonton Oilers' effort lately. He's been watching practices from the stands lately. The hockey world being what it is, these actions led to rumors that Hitchcock would quit the Oilers after 36 frustrating games, which grew loud enough that they ended up in Elliotte Friedman's "31 Thoughts" column: "That obviously didn't happen, but it underlines how tense things are in Edmonton."
But could ... you ... imagine if this did happen? How amazing that would be? That a coach whose sole purposes this season were to turn around the Oilers' defensive play (it's fifth-worst at 3.34 goals-against per game) and save his general manager's job (status: unemployed) decided to just peace out like a frustrated gamer slamming the reset button? If he pulled a Peter from "Office Space" and was like "I don't like my job, and, uh, I don't think I'm gonna go anymore."
Like, it's obvious whatever general manager takes this job, and decides building around Connor McDavid is worth marinating in the toxic mediocrity, is going to bring on his own coach rather than continue the Hail Mary pass that was Hitch's hiring. Why not pull the chute now?
Best Player In The World Of The Week
The Dynamos are a senior ice hockey team based in Gillingham in the U.K., and they're not what you'd call "good," with a 2-31-2 record and a minus-142 goal differential. Morris is a 21-year-old goalie, and he helped the Dynamos to a 4-3 win over the Bracknell Bees last Sunday, posting an impressive .963 save percentage.
Even more impressive, and the reason he's featured in this space? Morris got the win by stopping 77 (!) of 80 (!!) shots on goal in the game.
Invicta has been shorthanded for many reasons this season, and according to reader Rob M. had only 11 skaters against the Bees. But all they needed was Conor Morris, which is why he's our Best Player In The World Of The Week.
Deep cut reference, and deep hurting, in Calgary:
It's true. pic.twitter.com/aOJ1Z8Ztdr
- Mike Pfeil (@mikeFAIL) February 13, 2019
This is in reference to the great "what if?" for Flames fans back in 2004, when Martin Gelinas appeared to score in Game 6 against the Lightning but the on-ice officials couldn't confirm that the puck crossed the line. But, according to this fan, it was in.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles:
- Billy Puck Follower (@puckfollower) February 15, 2019
We'll never really understand the notion of putting the losing team in a Stanley Cup Final on one's back but, hey, it's their money to burn.
Listen to ESPN ON ICE
Our friend Barry Melrose and the great Jennifer Botterill, now an Islanders analyst, joined us to talk puck. Plus, we broke down the Randy Carlyle firing and revealed our NHL trade deadline picks for players we covet, bargains we're hunting and land mines to avoid. Stream it here or grab on iTunes here.
Oh, nothing to see here ... just a robot that learned how to ice skate. No, we're not talking about Crosby. An actual robot.
Should the Flyers trade the Ghost Bear?
The neck guard debate is back in North Dakota after a gruesome injury.
Nasty racial incident in a Massachusetts league: "Video purportedly shows a varsity boys' hockey player at the Old Rochester Regional High School spitting on a player from Wareham. During that same game, another Old Rochester player allegedly used a racial slur against the same Wareham player."
Lambert on the Ottawa Senators vs. the trade deadline: "Call every GM in the league and offer to make their problems go away, for a price. The goal for the Senators is to field as bad a team as possible."
Dom looks at the NHL strength of schedules for playoff teams down the stretch ($).
Finally, there's nothing like a hockey brawl on pink ice, like this one from the ECHL:
- Justin A. Cohn (@SportsiCohn) February 15, 2019
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
The NY Times looks at low attendance for women's hockey in Toronto.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Emily's piece on super rookie Elias Pettersson is a great read.