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USA hockey team "snubs"

By Matt Stypulkoski
On January 21, 2014

The NHL's Winter Classic is always a hit, but the most important part of this year's spectacle may well have come after the final buzzer.

Following a 3-2 Toronto win by virtue of the shootout, USA Hockey had a special announcement to make-the unveiling of its Olympic teams, both men's and women's.

To be sure, plenty of the usual suspects were there on the men's side of things-Jonathan Quick, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane all made the cut-but there were also some serious "snubs."

That word gets put in quotes because it's tough to define. Yes, people in hockey circles were quick to point out that Bobby Ryan and Kyle Okposo are better than probably a good half of the forwards on the roster. And fans and media alike were fast to raise issue with the selection of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, both of whom play for U.S. coach Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, as well.

But while those arguments may be valid talent-wise, they fail to take into account a few major factors that go into compiling the roster-not the least of which is that said roster must be a team, not just the best collection of individual players.

Chemistry, as overused a word as it may be, is vital to the success of an Olympic team. As Herb Brooks put it (or may not have put it, because who knows how many of his lines in "Miracle" are actually accurate), "I'm not looking for the best players...I'm looking for the right ones."

That, in essence, was the job of USA Hockey over the past weeks, months and years. Deciding, based on their intimate knowledge of these players and their games, which group would best gel together, best mesh and make the best team.

There's another factor in play here too, and a major difference from the brand of hockey these players are used to playing; unlike in the Vancouver Games, these Sochi Olympics will be played on a full international sheet of ice, as opposed to the NHL-sized rink that players are accustomed.

While the difference in the two may be just 15 feet in width, that relatively minor change makes for an entirely different brand of hockey. The bigger sheet emphasizes speed and makes strong skaters that much more deadly due to the extra open ice that's available. It also deemphasizes size and physicality, which is rewarded in the tighter quarters of the NHL.

With both those things in mind, pure talent isn't necessarily the best indicator for who qualifies for the Olympic team and USA Hockey made that perfectly clear. Ryan, Okposo, Dustin Byfuglien, Kieth Yandle and a whole host of other players may have deserved to make the team- or at least deserved a shot-based on their credentials, but roster space is limited and, in the eyes of the selection committee, their criterion didn't quite match up.

Of course, making decisions based on abstract concepts like chemistry isn't exactly a science and leaves USA Hockey open for some serious criticism if the team fails to perform on the ice in Sochi. Detractors and frustrated fans will have quick and easy arguments to be made if things go awry, and perhaps they'll have a point.

But at the same time, these gambles could pay dividends come mid-February. Really, it just comes down to this-let's wait until the puck is dropped before we judge whether the "snubs" were really snubs.

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