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Team USA players joke around while posing for a team portrait after beating Team Canada in overtime for gold at the world junior hockey championships finals in Saskatoon, Sask., Jan. 5, 2010. (GEOFF HOWE)
Team USA players joke around while posing for a team portrait after beating Team Canada in overtime for gold at the world junior hockey championships finals in Saskatoon, Sask., Jan. 5, 2010. (GEOFF HOWE)

Allan Maki

Victorious Americans steal from Canadian textbook Add to ...

They sat in the winner's dressing room Tuesday night and sang their hearts out.

"Oh momma, don't you cry,

USA Hockey is do or die …

Take a hockey stick in my hand,

Go on off to a foreign land …

Take the Gatorade in your glass,

We just kicked your [deleted]ass."

Say what you want about the language and exuberance of the U.S. team that won the 2010 world junior hockey championship - you can watch the victors' serenade on YouTube - there's no denying the symbolism: American hockey players are feeling pretty good about themselves these days.

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They won last year's under-18 and Junior-A world tournaments. They won this year's under-17 world championship and they won the under-20 junior title by ending Canada's five-year run on gold medals. That team, which consisted of 11 NCAA-based athletes and two with USA Hockey's national development team, defeated a Canadian side made up of major-junior players, and that's raised more eyebrows than the American players' singsong.

The recurring question is whether the NCAA system is catching up to the Canadian Hockey League when it comes to developing players. Certainly there's a rivalry between the two camps as evidenced yesterday when College Hockey Inc., which represents 58 NCAA Division 1 hockey schools, proudly noted how many of its players won gold in Saskatoon. Before that, the CHL extolled its virtues stating 1,140 players had been awarded $4.45-million in scholarships for the 2009-10 academic year, all that while playing some fine hockey.

"Both programs produce outstanding players," said WHL commissioner Ron Robison. "This U.S. [world junior]team was well prepared, well coached and very talented. They matched up well against us. But our Canadian program is, by far, the best in the world. We produce more players for the NHL, more players for international competition than any other."

Canada's dominance at the world junior level is clear and abundant. The Americans, by comparison, have now won just six medals in the history of the tournament. Still, their recent successes are evidence that the changes made to the U.S. hockey system are not only working, they're very Canadian-like.

For roughly a decade, the Americans have centralized their national development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. More kids are now playing hockey in the United States, which has created a larger talent pool. Some opt to play in the CHL, home to seven members of the new world junior champions. Others are going the university route and playing in the USHL. Whatever direction they choose, U.S. players now have to fight their way onto national teams instead of being appointed, a pivotal and necessary adjustment.

"They're getting kids from all over the place now - California, Arizona, Texas, Missouri - and they've gotten better at developing their talent," said University of Calgary hockey coach Mark Howell, an assistant with the Canadian junior team for three years. "I don't think there's anything wrong with what we're doing simply because the U.S. won the world juniors."

Don Phelps, coach of the AJHL's Calgary Canucks, who has sent several players to NCAA schools, including Dany Heatley, agreed wholeheartedly.

"I don't think there's any doubt the Americans are closing the gap. But we haven't gotten any worse. Someone else has been smart enough to emulate the game up here and make it work."

U.S. junior coach Dean Blais spoke of that following Tuesday's 6-5 overtime triumph in Saskatoon. He noted how, early on, he didn't want any "fancy Dan" players on his team and recounted why he and his staff cut several touted prospects to establish a team-first, do-or-die mentality.

"We played Canadian hockey," Blais said. "We played gritty. We blocked shots. We back-checked … You learn from the best."

That doesn't mean the Canadian hockey system is problem free. Critics such as Emile Therien, formerly the president of the Canadian Safety Council, have stated "the benefits offered by U.S. college hockey far out-strip what major junior has to offer." Less travel, fewer games, more practice time. And yet, many of those points are also used to underline what makes the CHL so proficient when it comes to churning out NHLers.

"There's no reason for alarm," Robison insisted. "Our program is a world-wide leader in every aspect of the game. We're very confident we'll continue to get gold-medal results in the future."

Just as the Americans are showing a Canadian-style approach can work wonders for them.

"I've always said if the best, blue-chip [American]athletes chose hockey over football and basketball, they'll really be good," said Murray Costello, the former Hockey Canada president and Hockey Hall of Famer. "That's not to say we're losing anything. You take hockey to the world it takes awhile for other countries to catch on. Once they do, they come along very quickly.

"That's what's happening with the U.S. They're challenging us."

With reports from Matthew Sekeres and Roy MacGregor

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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