U.S. men's team preparing for non-North American Games
PARK CITY, Utah -- The United States men's hockey team has enjoyed a lot of success on North American ice.
The Americans won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., and, as you might recall, upset the Soviets en route to the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The team won silver in 2002 (Salt Lake City) and 2010 (Vancouver), losing to Canada each time.
Playing elsewhere has been the problem. The U.S. has never won gold outside its own country and has medaled outside of North America only once since 1956. Even with NHL players, the U.S. team was, shall we say it, underwhelming at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and the 2006 Olympics in Torino, finishing sixth and eighth.
Which does not exactly bode well for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
St. Louis Blues right winger David Backes, who was on the 2010 team, said Monday that the U.S. recently talked about this pattern and how to change it. He said playing on Europe's larger rinks and playing somewhere outside their comfort zone are the major issues. (All teams played on an NHL-sized rink in the Vancouver Games.)
"Collectively, they're the biggest challenges," he said at the Olympic media summit. "I know that's a politician's answer to the question, but I think that they're the difference between success on North American soil and not a lot of success on European soil. Those two things combine for a little bit of adversity before you've even dropped the puck.
"On top of that, the other guys are swinging the other way. [In Salt Lake and Vancouver], they were going from living in their comfort zone to coming over to North America and not being comfortable with our culture, our society, our food, whatever," Backes added. "Now they're back on European soil and are as comfortable as can be. That tilts the table a little, but preparing for that and being aware that it's going to happen and taking it in stride will be a big factor in whether we have the success we hope to have or whether we don't."
"We have to come to grips with that," said Nashville Predators GM David Poile, who is also serving as the general manager of the 2014 U.S. men's team. "People were very comfortable in Salt Lake and Vancouver. They had their families there. Socially, they were comfortable because they could go out after a game or on an off-day and go out to a restaurant. Sochi will have a totally different dynamic. Sochi is not really close to anything -- the city is 35-40 minutes away. It's going to be a different experience for all the athletes."
Adapting to the ice and a less physical game is also important, Poile said.
"There has to be some adjustments," he said. "Whether it's angles for goalies or what a defensemen does in going back and getting a puck or what position a forward plays, there have to be some changes. Maybe it just seems obvious, but it needs to be pointed out to the players and put into the strategy of the game."