It is hard to believe today, but there was a time not too long ago when the prospect of naming just 20 good American hockey players would have been a challenge. For a long time the NHL was dominated by Canadian born players almost exclusively and the international game was fought between a select few countries with the United States clawing for fifth and sixth place.
The history of American hockey and American hockey players shows the evolution of a country and its players from after-thoughts to perennial favorites. The earliest days of the NHL were sprinkled with a little American flavor with players like Frank Brimsek. The Original Six era of the NHL was played with teams in U.S. cities making up two thirds in the of the league, but the first springboard for American Hockey came in the 1960 Winter Olympics when the underdog U.S. Men's National Team won the Gold Medal on home ice in Squaw Valley, California.
Squaw Valley was a coup for American hockey but the the real spark that ignited the explosion of hockey in the U.S. came in 1980 during the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in upstate New York. Every American hockey player knows about the Miracle on Ice when U.S. head coach Herb Brooks took a bunch of U.S. College players up against the dominant Soviets who were regularly competing with NHL teams, even beating the league's All Stars 6-0 in the 1979 Challenge Cup. It was in 1980 when young American hockey players learned to believe in miracles and that they too could compete at the highest levels.
Since that magical tournament in 1980, American hockey players have won multiple World Junior Championships, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and two Olympic silver medals. Individual awards have also been claimed with Conn Symthe Trophy winners and Norris Trophy winners. We would also be remiss if we did not mention the dominance of U.S. Women’s hockey and their successes at the World Championship and Olympic levels.
What makes the following list of top U.S. players so impressive is the names that were left off which include players like Phil Kessel, Tony Amonte, Ryan Kesler and Jamie Langenbrunner. Not to mention the highly touted college prospect Jack Eichel and first overall draft pick Erik Johnson. The depth of talent among U.S. Hockey has made creating a list of the best American players a challenging task, but we gave it our best shot. Players on this list must be born in the United States, which excludes Brett Hull, as while he is a dual-citizen and did play for the U.S. National team, he's a native of Belleville, Ontario.
Here are the top 20 American hockey players of all time.
20 Doug Weight
There are special players that see the game and ice in a different way. They are described as cerebral players or possessing great vision. They are players that can anticipate how a play is going to develop and position themselves or a make a pass to a teammate so that suddenly they are left wide open with the puck on their stick. As a spectator we wonder and question how they made that happen. Doug Weight was a player with that gift.
19 Ryan Miller
His appearance this early on the list may be looked at years from now as a mistake. He still has great years left in his career so there is still an opportunity for Miller to reach greater heights. Miller's placing may also be due to the fact that he has played the bulk of his career thus far in Buffalo for some poor Sabres teams. Miller's efforts covered up some of the issues Buffalo was having and gave the illusion that the team was not as bad as they were. Miller has a Vezina Trophy an Olympic silver medal and has been an NHL All-Star.
18 Neal Broten
The sole representative of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team that won gold, Broten was a quiet offensive stud if that is possible. He put up nearly a 1,000 points in just about the same amount of games played, the majority with the Minnesota North Stars as they were called prior to their move to Dallas.
17 John LeClair
It would not be unfair to say that John LeClair was a modern day American Phil Esposito. Both players were big and strong and seemed to be immovable from the front of the net. They both played alongside stars who seemed to take a lot of the attention away from them (Bobby Orr with Espo and Eric Lindros with LeClair) and they both needed to be traded away from the team that drafted them before they reached their potential.
16 Jonathan Quick
For a goalie to have the last name "Quick" he better be just that. NHL shooters are well aware of how fast Jonathan Quick reacts to shots as well as his stellar positioning and his unbelievable ability to extend his body to cover every square inch of the net. With two Stanley Cup rings as an L.A. King under his belt, Quick has established himself as America's top goalie as his anointment to the starter's position for the U.S. Olympic team in Russia confirms.
15 Kevin Stevens
Kevin Stevens is a player that had the benefit and burden of playing on some great teams. The benefits are easy to identify in that he won multiple Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990s. The burden is that because of players like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, Stevens was never fully appreciated for his outstanding play.
14 Keith Tkachuk
13 Derian Hatcher
12 Bill Guerin
11 Brian Rafalski
Rafalski is one of the great stories of the NHL that is not told often enough. He was undrafted out of college and went to play in Europe for a few years where the New Jersey Devils organization spotted him. He went on to play 11 seasons in the NHL becoming a multiple Stanley Cup winner, an All-Star, and an Olympian. Rafalski was an undersized defenceman that through smarts and strong skating was able to carry the puck up the ice untouched into the offensive zone.
10 Tom Barrasso
9 Joe Mullen
8 Phil Housley
7 Patrick Kane
6 Pat Lafontaine
Pat Lafontaine's career has left fans that saw him play wondering, what if?
5 Mike Richter
4 Jeremy Roenick
3 Brian Leetch
2 Chris Chelios
1 Mike Modano
It seems fitting that a kid from Livonia, Michigan a suburb of HockeyTown makes the no.1 spot on our list. Modano is no stranger to being chosen no.1. He was a first overall draft pick for the Minnesota North Stars and before he would retire he became the greatest goal scorer among American hockey players. Modano was a big, smooth skating centerman who was incredible to watch.
You could only tell how fast he was skating because his jersey would puff up in the back as he created a wind with his speed even though he looked like he was expending no effort at all. Modano's real greatness was his consistency in reaching the heights of offensive production over so many years, never seeming to slow down.
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