Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Steve on 12/10/07 at 03:35 PM ET
One of many complaints that casual sports fans have about hockey is that there are too many “foreigners” in our league. Which, by the way, is utter bunk because they support the NBA’s European and Asian outreach, and the Major Leagues are now making Hispanic players the norm.
But, they do have a point. The NFL, a league with 99.9999999% Americans in it, is the man in the United States right now. The NHL needs some new and talented red, white and blue blood.
Even as late as 2004 and 2006, USA Hockey’s need to rebuild at the top level has been apparent. Chances are, guys like Modano, Roenick, Weight, Tkachuk, Rafalski, Hatcher and Chelios (We can only hope he isn’t needed in Vancouver) won’t be around for the next Olympic tournament. Mike Richter is a distant memory. With the league supposedly on the decline in the states as far as media coverage goes, the next wave of American players will be the most important in the history of the sport in this country.
Here are five men who’s combination of natural talent mixed with compelling life story (Because America loves a good back story, look at our President…) that will make American hockey a player on the world stage again.
1. Patrick Kane
The Skinny: Try on Patrick Kane’s skates for size. At 5’10” and 18 years old, he’s the #1 draft pick of an Original Six team that he (along with Canuck running mate Jonathan Toews) has been selected to bring back from dead. All that pressure, combined with the normal hardships of being young and diminuative in a slightly bigger and slightly older man’s league. But Kane, a native of Buffalo, has passed the early tests with flying colors, leading the Blackhawks with an impressive 28 points in 29 games. He’s arrived at the right time, as the Hawks are certainly on the rise, on and off the ice.
The Story: It’s the classic hockey prodigy’s story, yet this one occurs in the U.S. (Well…Buffalo), young kid plays against kids older than him by age of 10, grows addicted to the game, spending hours and hours honing his skills. He also grew up around the game. As the nephew of a councilwoman, he grew up around the Sabres. On his wall are pictures of him with Joe Sakic, while young Patrick is wearing a Dominik Hasek sweater. By 14, he moved to Detroit to play at the highest level he could until he got drafted at 16 by London of the OHL. He got picked by Chicago #1 overall and made the team out of camp.
2. Zach Parise
The Skinny: 16 teams passed on Zach Parise in the 2003 NHL Draft. In fact, an 17th was about to do the same, until New Jersey GM/Overlord Lou Lamoriello traded up to take Parise. TSN analysts were calling it an absolute steal, and just another reason why Lou Lamoriello is who he is. After two seasons at the University of North Dakota, he was invited onto the Devils roster as an extra forward during the 2004 Playoffs. He spent the lockout year in the AHL, and made the big club in 2005. After a very trying rookie season, Parise broke out for 62 points, second on the team. This year, playing on a line with Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta has helped Parise to the tune of 32 points in 29 games. He went on a recent tear of 17 points in eight games. He is quite possibly the league’s fastest rising star, not only because of his considerable offensive talent, but his willingness to go 110% every night.
The Story: Zach gets his American citizenship from his father’s job taking him into this country. His father J.P.’s chosen trade? NHL Left Winger. The elder Parise scored 238 goals in his NHL career, and played in the 1972 Summit Series. He was likely best known to fans for scoring an OT goal as an Islander to defeat the Rangers in a best-of-three playoff series. He finished his career in Minnesota, and while an assistant coach with the North Stars, Zach was born. The younger Parise has chosen to keep his American citizenship, playing for the U.S. in several tournaments, including the World Junior Championship. There’s that Brett Hull-esque angle, he could’ve played for the greatest hockey nation on Earth, but chose to play for Uncle Sam.
3. Phil Kessel
The Skinny: Picked as America’s “Next One” heading into college, Phil Kessel broke the U.S. National Development Team’s records for goals scored and points. Due to being a little too young to go in the 2005 NHL Draft, Kessel lit up the WCHA with the University of Minnesota with 51 points in 39 games. The Bruins picked him 5th overall, and after a rough rookie season, Kessel has begun to show signs of life with the big club. If they could give him some consistent line mates, his high-energy style of play will lead him to fulfill the prophesy.
The Story: I mentioned that Kessel had a rough rookie season with the Bruins: How’s about being diagnosed with testicular cancer? The fact that he even came back a short time back is a testament to how tough this young man is, as well as the strides we’ve made in cancer treatment. He’s a kid you want to root for, and hopefully some day, he’ll make Boston puckheads forget the Joe Thornton trade. It’ll sure take a hell of a player to do that.
4. Dustin Byfuglien
“The Wild Card”
The Skinny: While Kane, Parise and Kessel we’re all heralded as “next-big-thing” types, even the most ardent of hockey nerd might not have heard of Dustin Byfuglien (Pronounced Buff-lin) yet. At 6’3”, 254 lbs., Byfuglien’s finally seemed to find a place with the Hawks this year, after two seasons of getting a cup of coffee with the club. “Big Buff”, whom the Hawks selected 253rd in 2003, has excelled at both defense and forward positions, and emphatically sealed his spot on the team with a natural hat trick, from the defense spot, in the first period of a recent game against Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Story: While many of the NHL’s elite are of at least upper-middle class backgrounds, Byfuglien grew up in a trailer in Roseau, Minnesota with a single mother who worked in a factory. He had to talk his way into playing at times. When his grades weren’t good enough to play high-school hockey, he gave it one last shot in junior, with Brandon and Prince George of the WHL. Byfuglien, who comes from a black father and white mother, is a story the NHL hasn’t seen much of. But wouldn’t the league love to promote it’s Diversity program with Dustin Byfuglien’s story, to show them that if he could do it, so can they?
5. Erik Johnson
“The #1 Pick”
The Skinny: Of all the NHL Players to come from the United States recently, Erik Johnson is likely the most heralded. The fourth American, and first defenseman, to be taken first overall in the 2006 Draft, Johnson – who’s 6’4”, 225 lb. frame reminds me of another former Blues defenseman – Has helped lead the U.S. to a Bronze Medal in the 2007 World Juniors, in which he busted out offensively with 10 points in seven games. After a year with the University of Minnesota, Johnson’s not looked out of place when healthy with the big club. 8 points and a +3 on a team headed back up the NHL totem pole this season. With some playoff experience under his belt hopefully by next year, this kid will be an absolute force to be reckoned with.
The Story: All you really need to know about Erik Johnson is in this revealing E-Mail Q & A with John Buccigross which Bucci repeatedly tries to run away with, but fails to because of the 18-year old’s ability to give an interesting answer, which are few and far between in today’s NHL player.
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About Kukla's Korner Hockey
Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.
Email Paul anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org