TORONTO — With two days to perform the autopsy, Team USA general manager Dean Lombardi doubled down on the construction of his roster on Thursday.
In his first public comments since the United States was ousted from World Cup of Hockey contention, Lombardi admitted he and his staff made the decision that they could not match Team Canada’s talent level and deliberately chose to build the team in a different way to try and top their cross-border rival.
“We’ve got some darn good players, but the reality is that matchup on a skill basis, if you want to go head-to-head and play a skill game, your odds of winning that game when you look at those matchups is not very good,” Lombardi said.
Somehow, while operating under the notion that his team was already short on talent against Canada, Lombardi and his management team of Brian Burke and Paul Holmgren widened the gap by leaving players with more talent off the roster.
The choice was grit and character over talent. And it’s why the United States failed to advance past the preliminary round in an international best-on-best tournament for the first time since the 1987 Canada Cup.
“The beauty of our game, of the four major sports, I think that our game allows emotion, competitiveness, caring about each other, [to] close that gap more than any other sport,” Lombardi said. “That’s why I think it’s the greatest game in the world.”
It may be the greatest game in the world, but Lombardi and the United States banked on their grit beating talent while myopically failing to recognize that talent always beats grit when the talent plays with equal grit.
T.J. Oshie’s pre-game comments on Tuesday, when he said if the game was “100 per cent talent, Canada will win and if it’s 100 per cent grit, we will win” only served to motivate Team Canada.
“I mean, I think that kind of fired us up to be honest with you,” Matt Duchene said. “You look at three of our four goals [against Team USA]; they’re dirty goals, gritty goals. Obviously we’re very skilled, but we have a gritty team as well and we showed it [on Tuesday].’’
He said he would do it again, too.
The question has to be asked: was John Tortorella the right fit as coach? Team USA didn’t seem prepared to face Team Europe in the first game of the tournament, which ended up being USA’s whole tournament.
“I don’t think we showed enough respect for the talent on that team [Team Europe], that part I agree with,” Lombardi said. “Clearly, I have addressed the lack of preparation for that, and not zeroing in on the battle before the war.”
In a three-game Round Robin, losing to Canada would have been acceptable. They only needed to beat Europe and the Czech Republic to advance and get another crack at Canada, but they fell out of the gate.
But that again comes back to the original argument: if the United States was lacking talent, it was because they chose grit over talent from the get-go.
The word Lombardi kept coming back to was “culture.” The truth is, no kind of winning culture can be developed by osmosis over a span of three weeks. The World Cup of Hockey is a sprint, not a marathon, and it’s about putting the best players on the ice for a battle of supremacy.
Lombardi remained steadfast in his belief, which is his right, considering he owns two Stanley Cup rings with the Los Angeles Kings. The problem is that the NHL is also shifting to speed and skill as top priorities - see: Pittsburgh Penguins - and the game is quickly passing the Kings by, too.
“The one thing I’ll say, this is the number one thing I want: Give me 22 guys that care,” Lombardi said. “Now, I know we got that first part … There were guys in tears in that room the other night and they were real. And I’ll always remember that.”
Meanwhile, Team USA at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey will be remembered for something entirely different.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli