Rob McClanahan remembers when the NHL ignored American hockey players. U.S. kids rarely got a break in the Canadian old-boys club, with legends like John Mayasich – a Minnesotan referred to as the Wayne Gretzky of the 1960s – banished to teams such as the Green Bay Bobcats and Minneapolis Millers.
This week, more than 100 scouts will come to Buffalo to watch USA Hockey's All-American Prospects Game. Representatives from Vancouver to Tampa Bay will take notes on the 40 U.S.-born players who will compete and skate Saturday in First Niagara Center.
Phil Housley, who will coach against McClanahan in the game, gives credit to his opposing bench boss for helping lift U.S. hockey to attention-grabbing status. McClanahan was a prime player on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal.
"The 1980 miracle team really opened the door for a lot of the players like myself and put us back on the map as far as hockey," Housley said Monday. "It's created a lot of opportunity for players from that point on."
The inaugural prospects game is the newest event created to help American hockey progress. USA Hockey has grown the game with its national development program and American Development Model. Those systems have groomed the NHL draft-eligible players who will showcase their skills Saturday.
"USA Hockey has done a tremendous job over the last 10 or 15 years of finding the talent and creating programs to allow those players to move a step above and beyond what had been available prior to that," McClanahan said during the conference call promoting the game. "It's phenomenal to have 40 kids of this caliber playing against each other from one country. It's just terrific. It's going to be fun to see these kids. It's going to be fun to see how they react to each other, how they react to certain situations in this specific game, and it will be fun to coach against Phil."
The coaches hope to use their status as U.S. hockey legends and pioneers to bring advice to America's next generation. Only one U.S. player (Mike Modano) has recorded more points in the NHL than Housley, who spent his first eight seasons with the Sabres. McClanahan spent parts of five seasons in the NHL, including his opening two in Buffalo.
"This is an opportunity for me to see these kids, hopefully share some of the wisdom that I have and what I gained over my experiences," McClanahan said. "If I have the ability to rub off some of that on some of these kids before they take the next step, then I've done something right."
Because their knowledge of the players is limited, the coaches' game plan is to keep things simple. The kids who are up for next year's draft have the talent to play collegiately and at the top levels of junior hockey, so Housley and McClanahan will put them in position to show their assets.
"Everybody wants to showcase their talent, and this is an important game for a lot of these kids' futures for next year," Housley said. "It's most important that we play as a team, with you getting your individual recognition through teamwork, and that's the way I think we're going to approach it.
"It's going to be very competitive. I think the kids are going to be excited being in the first-ever American prospects game. I think they're looking forward to this. It's a great opportunity for them."
It's an opportunity that didn't exist for other generations of American players.
"When I played, we went from high school to college," McClanahan said. "This type of opportunity didn't exist in any way, shape or form. If I'd have had the opportunity to do something like this, it would have been just spectacular.
"This game has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. I would like to think the U.S. had a ton of great talent prior to 1980, and there's no question that our good fortune has helped USA Hockey. With that success we've been able to develop some really good outstanding players and depth."