Team USA breakdowns start at the top

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- If USA Hockey is interested in becoming a consistent gold-medal threat at the World Junior Championship, it must re-evaluate its approach to the annual tournament.

The U.S. national junior team, which claimed the program's first gold last year, came within one goal of winning the bronze and claiming back-to-back medals for the first time in their 29-year history in the event. That was despite being significantly handicapped on defense by its own selection process, receiving inconsistent goaltending from last year's hero, Al Montoya, and seemingly ill-preparation by the coaching staff of Scott Sandelin, David Quinn and Mike Hastings.

Team USA's blue line, with the notable exception of three-year WJC standout and Nashville Predators prospect Ryan Suter, was so inept that one scout remarked, "the game plan should be to keep the puck away from those guys." Fittingly, the Czech's bronze-winning goal was off a neutral-zone turnover in overtime.

The problem with USA Hockey's approach begins with the organizational flowchart -- from president Ron DeGregorio, to executive director Doug Palazzari and senior directors Art Berglund and Jim Johansson, there isn't one person who's clearly in charge of the team.

"There's a lack of clear leadership," said one Western Conference NHL team's pro scout familiar with USA Hockey. "You can't be consistent when there's so much confusion at the top."

Conversely, Hockey Canada is a clearly defined organization. President Bob Nicholson, who has held the position since 1998, sets the tone for everything, from the nation's grass-roots efforts to international tournaments.

Under Nicholson, Canada became the reigning Olympic (men's and women's) and World Cup champion, and is the current title-holder of the world junior (under-20), world under-17 and world senior (men's and women's) tournaments.

Nicholson delegates the selection of players and coaches to one person. He enlisted Wayne Gretzky for the duty for the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup. Gretzky gathered a group of advisors to help him in the process, but he ultimately was responsible.

Blair Mackasey has overseen the process for Canada's junior national team for the last three world championships, which have resulted in a gold and two silver medals.

Ottawa Senators scout Lew Mongelluzzo has been the director of player personnel for the U.S. national junior team for the past five years. But unlike Mackasey, Mongelluzzo does not assemble the selection staff or the coaching staff, nor does he have the final say in who is picked. Instead, the decisions are made by a large, unnecessary group of people and often involve bickering and infighting.

At this year's tournament, most amateur scouts couldn't figure out why such high-end defensemen like Minnesota Wild 2004 first-round pick A.J. Thelen, National Team Development Program stud Jack Johnson (rated No. 2, behind Sydney Crosby, by Red Line Report for the 2005 draft) and Ontario Hockey League bruiser Matt Lashoff were left off the team. The decision to omit Johnson was even more difficult to understand considering 17-year-old Moorhead (Minn.) High School defender Brian Lee was rarely allowed to stray from Team USA's bench.

According to several sources close to the selection process, all three players had conflicts with Quinn while playing for him at the NTDP, USA Hockey's under-17 and under-18 teams assembled to develop elite players for the national team, and that contributed to the decision to leave them off the roster.

But who ultimately is responsible for that decision? Who knows. If one person had the final authority, there would be accountability.

Coaching is another issue. Last year, Mike Eaves and assistant John Hynes had the benefit of familiarity, preparedness and experience in international competition, having coached many of the players in the NTDP and guiding many of them to a gold-medal in the 2002 U-18 World Championship. As a result, Team USA was ready for the physical and mental demands of a short tournament against elite opponents.

Sandelin, the head coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, didn't have the benefit of either -- nor was he the first choice to coach the team. Originally, Sandelin's old boss, former University of North Dakota coach Dean Blais, was selected to coach Team USA. After consulting with USA Hockey management, Blais chose Sandelin and Quinn, currently the associate coach at Boston University, as his assistant coaches.

Sandelin was promoted to the top position after Blais accepted a job as an associate coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Hastings, the general manager and coach of the River City Lancers of the United States Hockey League who was a Team USA assistant at the 2003 World Junior Championship, was hired as Sandelin's replacement.

However, Quinn, who has more experience with the players and in international competition, appeared to be the dominant figure at the tournament, taking the lead during practice and with the media. There also were reports of bickering between the assistant coaches.

That confusion behind the bench spilled onto the ice, as the team often played without purpose. Before the puck dropped on the overtime period in the bronze-medal game, the staff sent four players on the ice instead of five, perhaps figuring the OT rules were similar to the NHL's. They weren't.

Sandelin said afterward he was disappointed the team didn't perform better.

"It's a short window," Sandelin said after losing the bronze-medal game. "You do the best you can to be a team. I felt we were too high or too low during the games. We played in spurts. We couldn't find any consistency."

But it's too easy to lay a subpar showing at the feet of the head coach.

Until USA Hockey changes the way it prepares for the World Junior Championship, Team USA will not be a consistent contender. And with the number of good, well-meaning, passionate hockey people and talented young players in the United States, that is simply a shame.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.