By Steve Klein -
ARLINGTON, Va. – What defines a hockey player hailing from the state of Michigan?
And what then differentiates them as potential U.S. Olympic hockey players?
The answer to those questions will take seven Michigan natives along the road to Sochi, Russia, and, perhaps, to the 2014 Winter Olympics Games Feb. 7-23, 2014.
The journey began in earnest on Monday and Tuesday (Aug. 26-27) at the Kettler Capitals IcePlex, where 48 players from 13 states and 24 National Hockey League teams gathered for the U.S. Men’s National Team Orientation. The camp will help the players prepare for a three-month long assessment period over the start of the NHL season to find the right mix of talent, character and the 25 players who will pursue Team USA’s first gold medal since the 1980 Miracle on Ice team and third overall since 1960.
With seven potential Olympic participants — only Minnesota with 14 players has more — Michigan is among the most represented states, and representative states.
In other words, Michigan matters.
“It used to just be the three ‘M’s’ — Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts,” admitted Brian Burke, director of player personnel and the general manager of 2010 Vancouver silver medal team. “Now, with 13 states represented here and 37 states throughout the program, we have increased the depth of the player pool. This team will be harder to pick than the 2010 team.”
With 16 returning Olympians, none older than goaltender Ryan Miller (East Lansing, Mich./Buffalo) at 33, not a single player had been born when the “Miracle on Ice” team won gold.
“This is a team that believes it can win,” said current General Manager David Poile (Nashville). “When we put on the USA jersey, we expect to win. We have a lot of younger guys, too. I don’t know if it’s their time yet, but there is a lot of potential for the future.”
And Michigan will still matter. Four more Michigan-raised players were named to the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game roster on Monday, which means Michigan is still producing top-end talent.
“With Michigan, it’s a lot like an Original Six team in the NHL,” said Bob Mancini, a regional manager for the American Development Model and a former college head coach at two Michigan schools, Ferris State and Michigan Tech. “The state has a long, tremendous history with the Detroit Red Wings to look up to and seven Division I schools.
“That’s why Michigan gets it right. It all blends together. We have a lot of athletes who played hockey in Michigan and have passed it along to their sons,” Mancini added, his own 11-year-old son part of the two youth hockey ADM-based clinics he supervised on Monday.
That legacy has not been lost on several of the Michigan players competing for the 25-man Olympic squad.
“My dad taught me the little things in terms of hockey. I could always call him after games, and he would tell me there’s always another one, to put the game behind you when necessary,” said Jack Johnson (Ann Arbor, Mich./Columbus) of his father, Jack.
“My dad never played hockey,” said Jacob Trouba (Rochester, Mich./Winnipeg), “but he always backed me up, told me what worked and what didn’t.”
Danny DeKeyser (Clay Township, Mich./Detroit) emphasized both his parents and the sacrifices they made, including countless weekend road trips.
“There was a time when I was 16, 17 and I didn’t know which direction to go. They pointed me in the right direction, taught me to play as hard and as best you can, and to keep things simple,” said DeKeyser, the sincerity obvious in his voice.
As for Justin Abdelkader (Detroit), who grew up in Muskegon, Mich., idolizing Steve Yzerman, his dad, Joe, “was there through thick and thin,” but his mom, Sheryl, “was always the buffer. My dad didn’t play hockey, but he knows when I play well or not,” Abdelkader said. “But for my mom, it’s always a good game.”
For Miller, it took a village that supplied relative after relative to the Michigan State University hockey program.
“My mom and dad would take me to the rink and the games,” said Team USA’s goalie during the Vancouver Games four years ago. “But early on, it was the whole family — my grandfather Elwood, uncle Lyle, who owned the rink in Lansing, my cousins. It was a lot of family … a lot of family.”
Ryan will enter the MSU Sports Hall of Fame next month along with his cousin, Kip. Both are Hobey Baker Award winners – the only two in the history of the Michigan State hockey program. Yet another cousin, Kelly, is an MSU assistant coach. For the Spartans, the Miller family has been the gift that keeps on giving.
Coaches can be like family, too, especially for players like Cam Fowler (Farmington Hills, Mich./Anaheim) and Trouba.
“For me, Pat Peake, my Midget Minor coach with HoneyBaked, was my mentor,” Fowler said. “He had so much passion for the game and instilled that in me. Improvement was mostly the mental game and how to think outside the rink. I was over-analyzing, and after a tough game, Pat taught me how to bounce right back.”
Trouba’s improvement resulted from skating drills his Compuware coach, Andy Copp, and his staff devised.
“He gave me a real shot at hockey,” said Trouba. “Until then, I was a little, chubby kid who couldn’t even skate backwards.”
So, what, then, defines a Michigan hockey player? USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean can rattle off defining characteristics.
“It’s a whole bunch of things,” Ogrean said. “Hockey goes back a long, long time there. There’s the proximity to the Canadian border. There is an iconic NHL team, and a cluster of successful university hockey programs.
“But it’s even more than that. There’s Amo Bessone and Ron Mason, John MacInnes, Vic Heyliger and Red Berenson, Scotty Bowman when he was in Detroit, among others. From them, there has been a massive trickle-down effect to the young people, who aspire to greatness.
“The foundation in Michigan is very strong and not dependent on one single thing or person.”
USA Hockey President Ron DeGregorio agrees wholeheartedly.
“Michigan has had great hockey leaders and families — the Ilitch’s, the Karmanos’s,” DeGregorio begins. “But there are the people who are operating the hockey rinks. Michigan has always had that kind of supply.
“The economy not withstanding, you have to credit the resiliency of Michigan. Look at the Miller family in Lansing. They are the kind of people who foster the sport and stay involved in hockey after playing the game. That’s important. Each generation stayed involved by getting the next generation involved.
“It’s good to have that kind of support trickle down.”
Ogrean calls the Olympic team “just the tip of a very big iceberg. The road to Sochi doesn’t just begin here,” he says of the two-day orientation camp. It begins in the rinks all around the country, especially in a state like Michigan, where dreams are born so that they can be ultimately realized.
“We get to cast a good light on our country in different capacities,” sums up Ryan Miller in his very quiet, laid-back manner. “Some do it in the military, and we honor them. Americans are supposed to achieve by doing our best. Our performance in the Olympics allows us to celebrate who we are as a people.”
And in that way, beginning on its many rinks around the state, Michigan matters and continues to define not only its players but the game they play as well.