COLUMBUS, Ohio - As this year's U.S. Olympic orientation camp wraps up in Arlington, Va., one thing has become clear: this is a different (and new) era for the American hockey team.
Gone are the days of Minnesota, Michigan and a smattering of other states being represented on the United States national team. Also, kiss the days of hoping for an Olympic medal goodbye. American hockey is definitely on the upswing, and as 48 of the nation's best players gathered in suburban D.C. this week, the expectations have raised accordingly.
Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, named an assistant coach for Team USA this summer, has definitely noticed a change in attitude in his first Olympic experience. It began in 2010 with a silver medal performance in the Vancouver Olympics and rolled over to the national junior team, which won gold medals in 2010 and 2013.
Further proof is on the orientation camp roster that is comprised of players from 13 different states.
"The teams have performed," Richards told BlueJackets.com. "All of these things play a part in USA Hockey's growth; the program has been very successful the last few years with the Vancouver Olympics and the World Junior gold medals. When you have success, you start to expect it and I think that's what we're seeing. We expect success now with USA Hockey, and you look at the great players now in the NHL and the Americans are right there.
"I look at this camp and we're going to have some really tough decisions to make, and that shows you the quality and the depth of the players that we have. It's there at every position."
Also present at every position: a blend of experience and youth. The experience need not be mistaken for age, though; the "oldest" player invited to camp is goaltender Ryan Miller (33) and there are three players (Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones, Alex Galchenyuk) with 1995 birthdays. While the present core group of players isn't going anyway anytime soon, the future is undeniably bright for USA Hockey.
"Again, it shows the success that our program has had," Richards said. "You have to give credit to USA Hockey for what they've been able to do throughout the country in terms of growing the sport. The NHL has played a big role in the visibility of the sport and how it's changed over the years, and that's what gets people excited about the sport - they're not just watching the game, but they also want to play the game.
"When you get kids involved, that gets more coaches involved and because of that, we're getting better programs and better players."
With a short camp and an NHL season about to begin, Richards said the U.S. coaching staff has had to refine its focus to help get the players prepared. It starts with getting to know the players on a personal and professional level, and then introducing them to some of the concepts that make up the foundation for their style of play.
It's a delicate balance in a compressed time frame, but Richards feels progress has been made despite the lack of an on-ice element this week.
"This is about starting to develop relationships with one another, and as coaches, getting to know the management group and vice versa," Richards said. "That's a big first step right there. The other part of it is that we're trying to coach, too, and trying to build something here. This is a great experience for everyone, and it doesn't matter how old you are.
"I think the veteran guys are really proud of this, but they're experienced and have been through it. Some of the younger guys might be in awe right now with what's going on, being around guys they've watched for years and now being selected as part of this camp. I'll tell you what, these veteran guys have been through it and they've talked about 2010 - and you can still see the excitement in them getting ready for 2014."
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