When the United States stunned the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the historic upset forced a lot of hockey fans to take notice. After that, the Americans fell back a bit in international competition. But their showing in the current Canada Cup tournament - even though they just missed reaching the semifinals - has earned them new respect among the major powers of Canada, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. The Canada Cup, first played in 1976, again in '81, and most recently in '84, has become the truest test of international hockey supremacy. Unlike the Olympics or the world championships, where all or most of the top National Hockey League players are unavailable, the Canada Cup offers a chance for the NHL's best to play the game for the honor of their country.
And the American team has been a competitive one in this tournament recently. It finished second in the 1984 round-robin segment, only to lose to Sweden in the semifinals. This year it defeated both the reigning world champion Swedes and Finland before dropping a tough 3-2 decision to Canada, then losing to both the USSR and Czechoslovakia to miss out on a playoff berth.
A blend of youth and experience has been the key to the upsurge of the US team. It was young stars like Pat LaFontaine of the New York Islanders who carried much of the load in this tournament, but they depended on the poise and leadership of such veterans as all-star defenseman Rod Langway of Washington and hard-hitting right winger Chris Nilan of Montreal.
Also, the US goaltending trio of John VanBiesbrouck (New York Rangers), Tom Barrasso (Buffalo), and Bob Mason (Chicago) was as strong as any in the tournament.
Langway, 30, and Nilan, 29, spearheaded the influx of US players into the NHL over the last few years. They did so with a defensive style that helped American hockey develop, but that is now becoming a problem in international competition. The Europeans are learning to deal with the grinding style of play, which at first left them flustered and disoriented, and it is clear that the US must put some variety into its style and come up with a couple of pure scorers.
One problem here is that many US college hockey programs find it easier to recruit their scoring specialists from Canada rather than try to promote their own - which of course restricts the development of American-born scorers. An even bigger obstacle in terms of the total hockey situation is the constant absorption of the best American athletes by the major college and pro sports of football, baseball, and basketball.
Because of the latter factor, population figures are deceiving; despite its size the US can easily be outnumbered by smaller countries in terms of hockey players.
``With a ratio of six-to-one Canadians to Americans playing the game, Canada is going to have most of the snipers [goal scorers],'' notes US coach Bob Johnson. But the former University of Wisconsin and Calgary Flames mentor, who now heads the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, is a staunch defender of US hockey.
``Not many people know this,'' he said, ``but 102 Americans played at least one NHL game last season. That's an amazing statistic.''
Indeed, international respect for American hockey is growing rapidly. In less than a decade, potential stars like LaFontaine, Joey Mullen, Bobby Carpenter, and Chris Chelios have emerged from fledgling amateur hockey organizations and become strong NHL players.
These offensively-oriented players have begun to give a new dimension to hockey programs that have always been known for strong goaltending and good defense. For while defense may be the key to winning Stanley Cups, a team needs both offense and defense to beat the Czechs, the Russians, or even Canada's best in the international game.