No room for coaching learning curve

Updated: December 1, 2003, 12:12 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Consider the Team USA training camp officially opened.

But instead of looking for a young defenseman with a great shot or an up-and-coming center with a quick release or an aging veteran with one last hurrah in him, Larry Pleau, Don Waddell and the rest of the USA Hockey brain trust are combing the hockey weeds for a coach that can pull all of those elements together on the game's grandest stage.

Ron Wilson
Ron Wilson coached Team USA in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and 1998 Olympics.
"The door is really wide open for who's going to coach this team," Pleau told ESPN.com shortly after he was named general manager of the U.S. team for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey which takes place Aug. 30-Sept. 14.

When Herb Brooks died in a single-car accident before the start of the current NHL season, USA Hockey didn't just lose a coaching icon, they lost the man who was most qualified to coach the 2004 World Cup team.

Having led the U.S. to a silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, not to mention his legendary role in the 1980 gold-medal winning "Miracle on Ice" Olympic team, Brooks was the prototypical national team coach. He had the respect of veteran players and newcomers alike, he knew the international game better than almost anyone connected to the program and was a master motivator and orator.

The void created by his death creates perhaps the single-most important challenge facing Pleau and assistant general manager Don Waddell, both of whom bring decades of international experience to the table themselves.

Make the right choice and the U.S. should be a strong candidate to repeat as World Cup champions. Make the wrong choice and a strong field will quickly eclipse U.S. hopes of maintaining its position as a global hockey power.

Obvious candidates include Ron Wilson -- who brings the most international experience of any American coach currently coaching in the NHL. He was the man behind the bench during the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 when the Americans pulled off a dramatic victory over Canada. But he was also the coach of the ill-fated 1998 Olympic team that disgraced itself on and off the ice in Nagano.

Wilson, who is just now turning around a promising, young San Jose franchise, will most certainly be in the mix. But given the importance of the decision, Pleau said they will leave no stone unturned and they will watch closely for candidates to make themselves known in much the same way players do when they come to training camp.

For instance, a young or relatively inexperienced coach whose team has success in the regular season and/or playoffs will be given consideration, said Pleau, who has no timetable for naming his bench boss but may not do so until late in the spring.

"I think you have to keep your eyes open to that," he said. "I definitely think that we're looking forward and hoping that somebody does jump out."

The tournament, which takes place in six countries on two continents, comes at a crucial time for hockey in the United States and the game in general.

The championship game, held in Toronto on Sept. 14, will finish just hours before the current collective bargaining agreement comes to an end, ushering in what many are predicting will be a lengthy labor stoppage.

A strong showing in the tournament which will generate a huge following around the globe is important to selling the game to American fans, said Pleau, whose own international playing resume includes the 1968 Olympics and 1969 World Championships as well as the 1976 Canada Cup, the precursor to the World Cup of Hockey format.

A strong showing also benefits the game at the grassroots level in the U.S., Pleau added.

"We're going into this tournament as defending champions and that's how we hope to walk out of it," he said.

The selection of a coach will send a definite signal about the type of team the U.S. will ice and the style of play that will be employed. Unlike the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, played on the bigger international ice surface, the World Cup games in North America will be played on NHL rinks with NHL officials.

Given that, it's not simply a matter of selecting your best players and throwing them on the ice, Pleau said.

A bigger, more physical defensive corps may be more desirable than a speedy, more mobile unit. Special teams, especially against powerful offensive units that will be fielded by Sweden, the Czech Republic and Canada, must also be factored into the mix.

We're looking for somebody that can prepare guys quickly. And more importantly motivate high-end players because that's what they're going to be dealing with.
Don Waddell, Team USA assistant GM
Ultimately, Pleau said, the American coach must be someone who can create chemistry in a short period of time, someone who can make assessments quickly and move to act on those assessments.

"Someone who can grab the moment that's in front of you," Pleau said.

"We're looking for somebody that can prepare guys quickly," added Waddell, the assistant general manager who was in St. Louis this week to discuss the U.S. entry with Pleau. "And more importantly motivate high-end players because that's what they're going to be dealing with.

"There's not a learning curve for a staff."

While there will be a strong carry-over from the American squad that lost but one game in the Salt Lake City Olympic tournament, the gold medal game to Canada, there will also be significant differences that will give this new team a distinctly different personality.

Mike Richter, the MVP of the first World Cup of Hockey and the star of the silver medal team, has been forced into retirement by injury. Gary Suter is gone. So too the graceful Phil Housley.

How do aging and/or injury-prone stalwarts like Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and John LeClair fit into the mix?

Will there be room for rising young stars like Rick DiPietro, Paul Mara, Tyler Arnason or Jeff Jillson?

There is no doubt the competition for roster spots will be keen and there will be hard decisions along the way.

"I think it's at a very high level," Pleau said of the element of competition.

Both Pleau and Waddell said they would not limit their choices to American-born coaches or coaches who are American citizens (Wilson, for instance, was born in Windsor, Ontario, but raised in the United States).

Naturally, Scotty Bowman's name came up.

"You're not going to count anybody out until you've had discussions," Waddell said.

It's unlikely Bowman, the game's master tactician with nine Stanley Cup rings as a coach, would take the position. Wayne Gretzky, who heads Canada's team for the World Cup of Hockey, has said he's spoken to Bowman about being involved in some capacity but Bowman declined. Beyond the head coaching position, Pleau and Waddell must also decide how to fill out the coaching staff. Typically, assistant coaches with international teams have been non-NHL head coaches with ties to USA Hockey or to the head coach.

Longtime national team assistant and New Jersey talent maven John Cunniff died of cancer in May, 2002, while others who have served in that capacity include Paul Holmgren, now the assistant general manager in Philadelphia, former Atlanta head coach and now New York Islander assistant Curt Fraser and Lou Vairo.

But given the success of the Canadian model in Salt Lake City that featured three NHL head coaches -- head coach Pat Quinn and assistants Jacques Martin and Ken Hitchcock -- each with strong personalities, each with expertise in certain areas, it wouldn't be surprising to see an all-NHL cast behind the American bench.

The one byproduct of the World Cup of Hockey should be a stronger showing in the annual World Championships this spring, a tournament that has often been a hard sell for American NHL players.

Pleau and Waddell will also be heading that team which will play in the Czech Republic from April 24-May 9. It's possible the coach named to the World Championships will not coach the World Cup of Hockey team given playoff commitments. However, players on the bubble for the World Cup team could strengthen their chances by taking part in the World Championships. Similarly, those who decline without a valid reason may jeopardize their standing. It has been so in Canada for a number of years where top players like Jason Allison were excluded from the Olympic team in 2002 in part because they didn't take part in the World Championships.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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