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.
In an era when offense was stifled by the popularization of the trap and relaxed enforcement against clutching and grabbing, Weight put up points so consistently he was regularly among the league leaders in assists. Weight turned average goal scorers into All-Stars.
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.
He seems to be always near the top of the league in goals against and save percentage and because of that he is one of the best goalies in the world today. It's possible that if Miller had played on some better teams, he would be ranked higher, but there is still time for him to change our minds.
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.
After a trade to New Jersey in 1995, Broten was able to help players like Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Claude Lemieux win the Stanley Cup. On that defensive minded Devils teams with bigger names grabbing the headlines, it may surprise some to know that Broten was the second leading scorer in the playoffs for the Devils that spring. A quiet offensive stud indeed.
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.
Obviously Leclair did not set offensive records like Esposito did, but for five years with the Flyers LeClair did not score less than 40 goals in a season and scored 50 or more on three occasions. That kind of consistency is difficult to find.
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.
The Kings are far from the best regular season team, but for the last few years and the foreseeable future, remain a top contender for the Stanley Cup because Quick is a sure bet to sparkle when the games really matter.
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.
He was a consistent offensive threat on every team he played for, never showing any fear to go to the dirty areas of the ice to retrieve loose pucks and hammer home goals. In over 100 playoff games Stevens averaged better than a point per game, showing he was a big game player.
14 Keith Tkachuk
Keith Tkachuk's last name is almost as difficult to spell and pronounce as he was tough to play against. He was a physical presence on the ice when he played, a prototypical power forward who could hit, fight and score goals. Unfortunately Tkachuck seemed to always be the best player on some under performing teams so he was never able to get his name etched onto the Stanley Cup. His value can be seen in the statistics he left behind. Tkachuck finished his career with over 500 goals, more than 1,000 points and over 2,000 penalty minutes which accurately describes the combined finesse and ferocity that Tkachuck played with.
13 Derian Hatcher
Hatcher was another member of what has come to be known as America's golden generation of hockey that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Hatcher's style of play certainly fit the era in which he played. He was a big, hulking stay-at-home defenceman who punished opposing forwards who dared to cross into the offensive zone. He was not the most gifted offensive player or the most fleet of foot, but he was never caught out of position and standing 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he could cover a lot of ice.
12 Bill Guerin
Bill Guerin was a high draft pick into the NHL and a key member of the golden generation of American hockey that arose in the 1990s. He was an effortless skater with a big hard shot who was not shy when it came to dropping the gloves and sticking up for himself and teammates. He never became a team's leading offensive threat but he consistently scored goals and put up points over a long career. With his large frame and excellent ability to skate, Guerin was equally as valuable checking opposing teams' top players making him a valuable asset to all the teams he played for.
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.
Rafalski never missed the playoffs in his 11-year career and in 165 career playoff games he put up 100 points as a defenseman. Upon retiring from the NHL, Rafalski was still at the top of his game.
10 Tom Barrasso
No team, no matter how good they are can win without a good goalie. The dynasty teams of the Montreal Canadiens had Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden, the Edmonton Oilers had Grant Fuhr and the Pittsburgh Penguins had Tom Barrasso. Barrasso entered the NHL with more expectations than any American goaltender before him. He was just 18 years old, skipping college and going right into the NHL. Barrasso didn't disappoint, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and Vezina Trophy as top goalie in his first year in the league. Barrasso carried a reputation as being somewhat less than cordial with reporters and even teammates. It is possible that he was not given the fan fare he deserved because of this reputation.
9 Joe Mullen
Mullen was the preeminent American goal scorer of his time. It pays to be the first and Mullen was the first American to score 500 goals in a career and 1,000 points. He was multiple All-star and Lady Byng winner as the NHL's most gentlemanly player. In a career that spanned 1062 games, Mullen put up 1063 points, showing a rare combination of longevity and consistency not seen before in an American player prior to Mullen. Mullen may not be as well known to younger fans because he was not known for playing a flash style but his competitiveness was unmatched in his day.
8 Phil Housley
Housley is another player whose stature in the history of American hockey is skewed because the style he played did not lend itself to replays on SportCenter. Housley's statistics alone are eye opening. He played in almost 1,500 career games, amassing nearly 900 assists and over 1,200 points. When he retired, Housley was America's greatest scorer in assists and points and since then has only been surpassed by the no.1 entry on this list. Housley was a smooth skating defenceman who could glide effortlessly by attacking players and seemed to always find the the open man for a pin point pass. In the history of hockey there have been few players who could quarterback a power play as efficiently as Housley.
7 Patrick Kane
It is always difficult to enter the NHL as a number one draft pick with the unavoidable high expectations that get attached to you. Patrick Kane had to deal with those inflated expectations on top of being drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, a long fledgling original six team that had a disillusioned fan base. The team needed to be reinvigorated. Two Stanley Cups and countless highlight reel goals later, the Blackhawks are the talk of Chicago. Kane may lay claim to the softest hands in the game and his amazing stick handling skills can be seen on various Youtube clips.
6 Pat Lafontaine
Pat Lafontaine's career has left fans that saw him play wondering, what if?
Lafontaine was an offensive dynamo in junior where in one season he scored 104 goals, 130 assists for 234 points in only 70 games. He was an incredible skater with a great shot and terrific control of the puck, but his slight build made him vulnerable to hard hits from opposing players. Struggling through concussion problems eventually forced his early retirement but Lafontaine still managed to score over 1,000 points in far fewer than 1,000 games.
5 Mike Richter
The goalie that backstopped the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994, ending a 54-year drought and the goalie that led the U.S. to the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 was the diminutive Mike Richter. Playing on such a grand stage against the best competition in the world, representing your country and the pressure cooker that is New York, required a great deal of composure and nerve. Richter was able to move around the crease and find ways to keep pucks out with every part of his body and piece of equipment he had. Rangers fans will always have a special place in their heart for the little guy with the Statue of Liberty on his mask.
4 Jeremy Roenick
The only thing that shined brighter than Roenick's talent on the ice was his personality off of it. Roenick was an incredible skater and a multiple time 50-goal scorer. He seemed to burst on the scene and temporarily turned the Blackhawks around and made the old Chicago Stadium a noise machine when Michael Jordan wasn't there. Roenick had the rare combination of being extremely skilled, willing to play with a physical edge, at the same time understanding his role as an entertainer. He seemed to appreciate the relationship between players and fans and was always willing to entertain those who came to see him play. When JR retired, the NHL became a little less fun.
3 Brian Leetch
Texas born, but raised in the northeastern United States, Brian Leetch was a supremely talented defenceman for the New York Rangers and U.S. National Team. His agility was unmatched as forechecking forwards would think they had him trapped and poised to turn the puck over, just to watch Leetch make a quick turn and find safety in open ice with the puck on his stick. Leetch was a Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenceman, Calder Trophy winner as Rookie of the Year and also a Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP. His resume warrants his name being involved in any list of the greatest American players.
2 Chris Chelios
Chelly as he was affectionately known, played the game like a warrior. He seemed to be always looking for a challenge on the ice and faced each one head on. He was never the biggest or fastest or most skilled player, but he was rarely out conditioned and his will to win could not be matched. A three time Norris Trophy winner and multiple Stanley Cup champion, he played in 1,651 games up to the age of 47. There's no doubt there were games Chelios played in when many of his teammates and opponents were in diapers while he was winning Norris Trophies.
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.