- Jim Kelley
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TORONTO -- In the hours just before he was officially inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, someone asked American-born legend Pat LaFontaine if he could see himself in involved in the game in the near future.
LaFontaine indicated he would jump at the chance to be a part of helping Team USA prepare for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
"When I retired my first thought (and promise to my family) was that my traveling days are over," LaFontaine said. "But something like this, a short series, I'd be honored if the opportunity presented itself."
It should be noted that LaFontaine was not lobbying for the job. He was asked a question and being a long-time supporter of USA hockey made it clear he would gladly donate his time and expertise if asked.
In light of Team Canada selecting Wayne Gretzky as its executive director, it's something USA Hockey might want to think about.
Team USA media representative Chuck Menke told ESPN.com on Wednesday that USA Hockey has not yet formulated its administrative team. Given the strength of the organization at this level -- NHL general managers Lou Lamoriello (New Jersey), Larry Pleau (St. Louis), Craig Patrick (Pittsburgh), Don Waddell (Atlanta), Mike Milbury (New York Islanders), Jay Feaster (Tampa Bay) and Brian Burke (Vancouver) are all American-born, and David Poile (Nashville) holds dual citizenship -- it's the longest of long shots that LaFontaine would have a Team USA role similar to Gretzky's. It's not outside the realm of possibility, however, that he'd be involved.
The same could be set of now-retired New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter who, along with LaFontaine, helped the U.S. win the gold medal at the 1996 World Cup in dramatic fashion versus Canada.
It's been eight years since the World Cup of Hockey has been contested, and almost two since the 2002 Olympics. With training camps scheduled to open in nine months -- and roster candidates having brushed the offseason rust off -- the timing is good for the U.S. contingent to start planning now. Considering the NHL season rolls into June, and that teams are busily engaged with the draft and contract signings -- and this year, the uncertainty surrounding the expiring CBA, having people on board who can contribute in a meaningful way but are free of NHL duties is an idea worthy of serious consideration. Having LaFontaine and Richter in the field, helping to plan, scout and devise strategy that the eventual USA boss can eventually work with, would be a smart way to go.
The need for that is obvious.
Much has changed in the ranks of U.S. hockey since that '96 win and the oh-so-close effort of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Richter and LaFontaine have both been forced into retirement (coincidentally, both because of head injuries). Goalie Tom Barrasso and defensemen Gary Suter and Phil Housley have also retired. Tragically, 2002 Olympic coach Herb Brooks died in a car accident during the summer, and John Cunniff, an assistant to Brooks, succumbed to cancer three months after the Games.
With veterans like Mike Modano, Chris Drury, Bill Guerin, Brett Hull, Dough Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Brian Rolston and Todd Marchant, the U.S. still has a strong contingent of forwards. However, there should be concerns regarding a thin and young pool of defensemen and goaltenders. Coaching will also be an issue.
Mike Dunham, who was on the 2002 Olympic squad, would be a likely No. 1 candidate in goal, but who will be charting the progress of Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro or of Ryan Miller, who's currently playing for the Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.? Is anyone keeping tabs on the progress of John Grahame in Tampa, Robert Esche in Philadelphia and Brian Boucher in Phoenix? What about Garth Snow (Islanders), Brent Johnson (Blues), Ty Conklin (Oilers) and Phillipe Sauve (Avalanche)?
It's important to identify how well a goalie plays in a short, critical stretch and how he recovers from surrendering bad goals in big games -- not by reputation or potential.
Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch is still a star, but someone needs to determine what, if any, role might be in store for aging captain Chris Chelios (Red Wings), and chart the seasons of Brian Rafalski (Devils), Keith Carney (Mighty Ducks), Mathieu Schneider (Red Wings), Bryan Berard (Blackhawks) and Ken Klee (Maple Leafs). Someone needs to keep an eye on the development of younger players like Tom Poti (Rangers), Jeff Jillson (Bruins), Mark Eaton (Predators), John-Michael Liles (Avalanche) and David Tanabe (Coyotes).
While the World Cup rosters are usually peopled with experienced players, Team USA may well have to scour the collegiate ranks to make sure there is adequate depth.
Ron Wilson coached the U.S. to the gold in '96, but isn't it time to take a look at John Tortorella in Tampa Bay or perhaps Mike Sullivan of Boston, Tony Granato of Colorado or even Mike Eaves, the current University of Wisconsin coach who has had great success with younger players on the international stage?
The U.S has decisions to make, likely a great many more than the Canadians. Using the expertise of former NHLers and international veterans like LaFontaine and Richter might be a good place to start.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
With so many questions surrounding its World Cup entrant, USA Hockey could start with two men for the answers.