When Dean Lombardi put together the United States roster for the return of the World Cup of Hockey, one model that attracted his attention was a team from 20 years ago.
That U.S. team led by Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Mike Richter beat Canada to win the tournament, a title the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings hopes to duplicate this fall. Lombardi and USA Hockey finalized the 23-man roster Friday, and the result was a gritty bunch that will very much fit coach John Tortorella’s personality.
Instead of taking pure skill in the form of forwards Phil Kessel and Paul Stastny and defensemen Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk, the U.S. went with grinders Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky up front and two-way players Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson on the blue line. Lombardi said the goal was the “type of the team that you think can beat Canada,” and one that will coalesce quickly without much time to prepare.
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“It made it essential that you do all your research in terms of not only the quality of the player and his ability but their history of being a good teammate and things like that,” Lombardi said Tuesday in a phone interview. “There was a lot to choose from, don’t forget. There are a lot of good players and you could easily argue that this guy should be here and everything else, and you wouldn’t be wrong.”
The 1996 team had high-end skill in the form of Hull, Modano, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte, who scored the World Cup-winning goal that Lombardi considers the biggest in U.S. hockey history – more significant than Mike Eruzione’s from the “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics.
Lombardi was quick to point to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise and San Jose Sharks’ Joe Pavelski as the offensive talent that should mesh with the toughness of Dubinsky, Callahan, St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler.
No Kessel came as a surprise given that he tied for the scoring lead at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and is leading the Pittsburgh Penguins in points in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Lombardi said the U.S. had plenty of skilled wingers and was looking to fill specific roles with its final few players.
“He’s a top player, but so are these other guys,” Lombardi said of Kessel. “It’s a good problem to have, but you can’t have all skill just like you can’t have all grit. You’re building a team, not an All-Star team.”
Lombardi and fellow USA Hockey management members Paul Holmgren and Brian Burke like a certain amount of size and toughness on their teams, so they knew this team would have a certain MO. Hiring Tortorella cemented that, and the final roster meetings in Colorado included a lot of the coach’s input.
But Lombardi also talked to 1996 World Cup-winning players like Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin and Derian Hatcher as well as some who got a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics and lost the bronze-medal game in Sochi. He wanted to know what went right, what went wrong and how to fix it, going so far as to watch the 1996 tournament again in the process.
That group was together in dorm rooms for a month in Providence, Rhode Island. The 2016 team will have some time at training camp in Columbus, Ohio, but that’s so little preparation that Lombardi and Co. wanted to define jobs in advance.
“If you’re going to pull it together quickly, it’s very clear what your roles are,” Lombardi said. “You don’t have time for players to figure that out. That’s what a player wants. He wants to know his role, then he’ll fit into your team concept.”
With a focus on NHL-sized ice and Canada as the target, Lombardi hopes he put together the right mix to win it all in Toronto.
Canada is “the benchmark and that’s what you’ve got to look at if you’re going to win this thing,” Lombardi said. “If they can come together like (the 1996) group and learn from maybe some of the mistakes they made as a group in the past and a lot of them have been together, they can beat Canada. No doubt about it.”