When you look at the growth of the game of hockey in the United States, there’s no denying that the explosion began in 1980 when the United States Olympic Team stunned the world with their upset victory over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid on their way to a gold medal. The Islanders’ connection to the growth of the sport in America will forever be tied to that “Miracle on Ice” team because of defenseman Ken Morrow. The Davison, Michigan native not only won the gold medal with the United States in 1980, but he arrived on Long Island right after the Olympics and helped the Islanders win the Stanley Cup.
In fact, the Islanders became the first and only United States based team to go on to win four straight Stanley Cups. Over the years, the Islanders have had some terrific American-born players don their sweater including Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, who joined the Isles after the 1984 Olympics, and current Captain Anders Lee. So, it’s only appropriate that not only are the Islanders a part of the NHL’s “Hockey Day In America” schedule on Sunday, but they’re actually leading the slate off by hosting the Buffalo Sabres for nationally televised noon face-off on NBC at Nassau Coliseum.
“It’s a great day to highlight our game and have it broadcast (nationally),” said Lee, a native of Edina, Minnesota. “Growing up in Minnesota, I know how important hockey was to everyone’s community and a lot of people’s up ringing. It’s a really special thing.”
Hockey has come a long way in the United States and the gold medal in 1980 was just the start of it. Eventually, the game would grow in non-traditional hockey states like California, Florida, and Texas.
“As an American I think it’s great to see the game growing in so many other areas outside kind of the mainstays,” said Lee. “You see these spots where hockey has done really well and continues to grow. It’s great to see that and great to see some of these kids make it all the way to the NHL and inspire their kids back home.”
The NHL also made it’s way to Tennessee in 1998 as current Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz began his NHL coaching career with the Nashville Predators, the first of three United States based NHL teams he has coached. Born in Dauphin, Manitoba and now a United States citizen, Trotz coached the Predators for 15 seasons before moving on to the Washington Capitals. He guided the Caps to a Stanley Cup in 2018 and then left to take over the Islanders.
For Trotz, “Hockey Day In America” means a lot.
“It’s a celebration for our game and a celebration for the roots of it,” said Trotz, who won the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year in 2018-19, his first season with the Islanders. “I really enjoy this because I’ve seen the growth of hockey in the (United) States.”
There was a time when there were only a handful of American-born players in the National Hockey League but those numbers began to grow after the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 because there were so many American youngsters who were inspired to start playing hockey. Over the years, the United States starting developing better coaches and players as they became a force in international play. With NHL players, the United States won the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 and they’ve won a total of eleven Olympic medals including gold medals in 1960 and 1980 along with eight silver medals (most recently in 2010) and one bronze medal.
The United States has also won five World Junior Hockey Championships including this past January when they beat Canada 2-0 in the final. The United States has also become a major power in the women’s game with gold medals in 1998 and 2018, silver medals in 2002, 2010, and 2014 and a bronze medal in 2006.
“You just have to look at the junior teams every year,” said Trotz. “Team USA may be as deep and as skilled in the world when it comes to comes to development program. For a long time, Canada and Russia were the powers in hockey and you can’t say that anymore. The USA is as powerful as Canada and Russia and the Swedes and the Finns. They’re one of the hockey powers now.”
The Islanders have always been synonymous with USA Hockey and not just because they were the first United States based NHL dynasty. Over the years, there’s been American-born players like Ken Morrow, Pat LaFontaine, Scott Lachance, Marty McInnis and Rick DiPietro that have worn the blue and orange in addition to the red, white, and blue.
On the current Islanders roster, there’s Captain Anders Lee and Brock Nelson along with red hot rookie forward Oliver Wahlstrom and prospect Kieffer Bellows who was a part of the United States’ World Junior Championship team in 2017.
It’s “Hockey Day In America” and it’s only fitting that it starts at high noon with the Islanders in action.