If USA Hockey is looking to promote its success this decade, the executives should take their marketing dollars to Hollywood. Amid the glitz and glamour of “Tinseltown” live three billboard quality ads for the United States.
Fourth-year center Dustin Brown, second-year wing Patrick O’Sullivan, and rookie defenseman Jack Johnson have all played integral roles in USA Hockey’s resurgence this decade. Now they’re three cornerstones for a rebuilding franchise in Los Angeles. But if Brown, O’Sullivan and Johnson can mimic their success from the international stage to the NHL, the Kings could quickly challenge Anaheim for hockey supremacy along the Pacific coast.
“Ever since I’ve been here there have been more American guys than normal. Not necessarily marquee players, but Americans in general,” Brown told NHL.com. “Now having three so-called core Team USA guys is something to build on for sure.”
Each of these three can author a remarkable international résumé.
At least one of them played for Team USA’s entry in the World Junior Championships from 2002-07. O’Sullivan played in three WJC’s from 2003-05, helping Team USA to its only World Juniors gold in 2004.
In fact, prior to arrival of the three aforementioned players in the USA program, the Americans had won just three medals in the first 28 years of the World Junior Championships. In the last seven, Uncle Sam has taken home two medals, O’Sullivan’s ’04 gold and Johnson’s bronze last year.
Brown, O’Sullivan and Johnson also have played in a combined four World Championships, and O’Sullivan and Johnson were tutored in Ann Arbor, Mich. at the United States National Team Development Program.
“The fact that they’re all U.S. kids I think speaks to just how good the hockey is getting in the USA because they all come from different areas,” Kings coach Marc Crawford said. “Hopefully we’ll get a few more.”
O’Sullivan, 23, who hails from North Carolina, left the USNTDP as an 18-year-old to play major junior hockey in Canada. After scoring 92 points for the Mississauga IceDogs of the OHL, he was named OHL and CHL Rookie of the Year.
Two years later, he scored three goals in helping Team USA’s WJC squad take home the gold. Now, in just his second NHL season, he’s playing top-line shifts for the Kings and producing with 13 goals and 17 assists through 58 games.
“He might be the most improved player I’ve seen in 12 months,” Kings GM Dean Lombardi, a native of Massachusetts, told NHL.com. “Quite frankly, he had no interest in playing in traffic, getting his nose dirty, protecting the puck, getting to the holes. In the summer, he spent a lot of time looking at those areas, looking himself in the mirror and his improvement in those areas is as much as I’ve ever seen.”
Brown, who is also 23 and a native of Ithaca, N.Y., teamed with O’Sullivan in the 2003 World Junior Championships, losing in the bronze-medal game. Now he’s one of the most complete players in the NHL. Brown leads the League in hits and could be on his way to a 30-goal season.
Brown has 24 goals and 241 hits, 41 Better than second-place Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek, also a young American player.
Johnson, from Indianapolis, is the baby of the bunch. He turned 21 last month and played in World Junior bronze-medal games both in 2006 and 2007. Team USA lost to Finland in 2006, but beat Sweden last year to take home its first medal since O’Sullivan’s gold.
Now Johnson, the third-overall pick of the 2005 Entry Draft, logs more than 20 minutes per game as a rookie defenseman. He has nine points so far this season.
“His progress for a first year, (I) couldn’t be more than happy,” Lombardi said. “This (summer) will be crucial for him. He can’t be satisfied. He’ll have to spend this summer analyzing his game. This kid’s not playing to play; he’s playing to be the best.”
While O’Sullivan admitted it is “pretty cool” to be on the same team with two other Team USA members, he said the level of comfort he gained in joining a team already stocked with one former teammate (Brown) was essential in his growth.
“Last year it was nice for me having Dustin because I didn’t really know anybody else on the team,” O’Sullivan said. “And, for Jack, we played against each other growing up and we’ve been in different camps together. So I’m sure for him it’s nice just seeing guys you know from before.
“It’s hard as a young player in this League to find that comfort both on the ice and off the ice. I think a lot of people don’t realize how hard that is. I could be wrong, but I’m sure (Johnson) likes having guys that he can talk to, younger guys around that are the same age that he can relate to.”
Because of their international résumés, Johnson, O’Sullivan and Brown are also taxed with being key components to the Kings future. They plan to use their successful Team USA experiences as a guide.
“We have one guy on this team that has won a Stanley Cup (Rob Blake), so everyone has to draw on their past experiences -- whether it’s NCAA, World Juniors, or World Championships,” Brown said. “With the U.S. program, we’ve played numerous times in numerous situations.”
Could the big one – the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – be next?
Nobody wants to think about it. The dream is still a dream.
“All three of us would love to play for Team USA (in the Olympics) if we had that opportunity, but it’s a long ways away,” O’Sullivan said. “It would be pretty neat to say the least. Hopefully that will happen.”