It was not quite the story book ending that US Hockey had in mind as they departed for Sochi sixteen days ago.  While the women’s squad sits atop their respective mountain – or at least within sight of the peak as I would still put good money of their success in a seven game series against the Canadians even being down 2-0 in the past six days – the men leave Russia in a state of flux.  Having left us all at the cusp of glory four years ago, hopes and expectations were high as the men’s team returned to finish the job of bringing home gold.  Patrick Kane famously said, “it’s gold or bust” as he and the team took the ice for the first time two weeks ago and he spoke for the entire USA Hockey program in doing so.  Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way.

As the Games come to an end, the US found themselves off of the podium as they rightly should have.  Looking back on the tournament as a whole they probably were the fourth or even fifth best team in the field (I’d be interested to see the outcome if they played the Russians ten times) and that’s exactly where they finished.

Before the Olympics began a fantastic article from ESPN’s Scott Burnside came out that was his summary of the months of meetings & decision making by Team USA’s brain trust as they put the team together.  The article was unprecedented and I think we can safely assume it will remain one of a kind as the fallout since its publishing all but ensures a similar invitation will not be extended in the years ahead.  They say that hindsight is 20/20 and in looking back at the piece there are some decisions that were made that could very easily have the label of “questionable” applied to them today.  In many ways it’s not fair to deconstruct this scene after the fact, in light of what we know today as had the US men returned victorious the article would be looked at as a blueprint of sorts in Olympic team building.  But the team didn’t win and the questionable decisions were labeled as such on the day the article was published.

Two things stand out to me in that article.  The first is the fact that while Dave Poile was tabbed as the General Manager and holder of the final decisions, he was not the man in charge of those meetings.  Another way of saying it is that for being an advisor to the process, Brian Burke seems to have a lot of sway in the team that was sent to Russia.  Secondly, the team that was constructed from this process was built in the wrong mold to be successful.

These past two weeks of Olympic hockey were some of the most beautiful and well played games I’ve seen.  Sure when Latvia takes on Norway it’s not a collection of world beaters per se, but the US-Russia, Canada-Finland, & US-Canada games were things of beauty.  The games were fast & efficient with crisp passing and creativity abound.  The defense was sound and fundamental where the top teams played as cohesive units after two days of practice.

In the US-Canada game in particular it was like a game of chess played by two of the best players in the world, only the Canadians were a little better, toying with the Americans in a way, letting them think they were in it without ever really giving up a shot they weren’t comfortable allowing.

In the game prior against the Czechs the US employed their self-titled “Meat Line” (Ryan Callahan-David Backes-Dustin Brown) to beat up and make life miserable for a 42 year old Jaromir Jagr and the Czech’s only real scoring threat.  Against the Canadians, a team able to win with four solid lines of talent and skill, the “Meat Line” looked as dumb as it sounded.  They couldn’t hit what they couldn’t catch.  Dustin Brown went from the team’s captain in 2010, to an alternate this year, to a two week vacationer four years from now.

Somewhere in our American DNA there’s a unique blend of arrogance, braggadocio, creativity, and us-against-the-world mentality that probably comes from our youth as a nation and the intestinal fortitude of the people who once left their lives behind to come start anew in our land of opportunity.  That evolutionary soup from which we all have bathed historically gives our sports teams an advantage in many ways but it also has bred a degree of stubbornness where we tend to be set in our ways often times to our own detriment.

The team Brian Burke err… Dave Poile put together fit the mold of the gritty American squad that was built to out work & apply more elbow grease than their opponents for a two week run.  American hockey has been defined by solid goaltending and a group of guys that will try harder than the rest of the world.  That model is good to come out on top (or very near to it) every twenty years or so.  That model is not good enough going forward.

We’re in the midst of an American revolution in hockey where we’ve emerged as a true world power for the forseeable future.  The teams we send to the World Junior Championships are now perennial contenders (having won twice in the past five years).  They’ve won with skill and talent like our country has historically not produced.  With this pipeline now open (and more is on its way) it’s time to shift strategic gears.  Players like Seth Jones, John Gaudreau, Brandon Saad, & Alex Galchenyuk are on their way and their skill set is much more akin to that of Patrick Kane than it is Dustin Brown.

There’s nothing wrong with size and grittiness for the record.  The Canadian’s line of Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Jamie Benn had both in spades.  They just had more on the talent front than their American counterparts.

In the Burnside article the one voice of reason in the group as best I can tell is Stan Bowman.  Yes I am biased to a fault here but it seems to me that when logical salient points are made Burnside notes that Bowman is either the one from which they came or he’s in agreement with them.  When it’s a sound byte you’re looking for, Burke seems to be the one to turn to.  Bowman pushed for talent  while Burke wanted grit.  The louder voice seems to have carried the day this year but I would not be surprised to see that change by the time Korea is on the horizon.

The game of hockey is evolving.  Clutching and grabbing is going away, it’s more important to have good hands than good fists.  It’s time for the American game to evolve along with it and I think we’ve got the right brain trust at our disposal and the right skill set on its way.  Hopefully it takes coming up empty as they did this week in order to receive the wake up call they need.  In the meantime, the party the Americans were planning is instead being thrown just a few miles to the north (again).