Olympic men's hockey: the Michigan connection


Tonight, the Winter Olympic games begin with opening ceremonies in Vancouver.

Ever since the Team USA "miracle on ice" in 1980, men's ice hockey has been one of the most closely followed sports in the Olympics.

This year's squad has a distinct Michigan flavor. The state's youth hockey system has a lot to do with that.

AUDIO: The path to Olympic glory starts in places like Suburban Ice in East Lansing.

On a recent Saturday, the Lansing Capitals Squirt A team of boys ages eight and nine is practicing. These boys all say they'll be watching the Olympics. Being in East Lansing, most say the player they're rooting for is a former Spartan goaltender who's expected to be Team USA's starting netminder.

Ryan Miller is joined on the squad by five other players from Michigan: Brian Rafalski, Tim Gleason, Tim Thomas, Ryan Kesler, and Jack Johnson. No other state has as many players on the team.

Johnson is a defensemen with the Los Angeles Kings. He played collegiate hockey at the University of Michigan.

This will be the first Olympic Games for the 23 year old Johnson. Before his time as a Wolverine, Johnson played on the Under 17 and Under 18 development teams in his hometown of Ann Arbor. Six other players on Team USA spent time in that program, which grooms players for international competition.

He says having those programs here is a big boost to hockey in the state.

"Yeah, definitely, and that's the purpose of the development program, is to keep a steady production of great hockey players," Johnson says, "and that development program has been fantastic. It was great for me. I had a great experience, and it helped me tremendously to get to the point where I am."

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski will be an alternate captain for Team USA in his third trip to the Olympics. He says one reason Michigan develops so many players is the winter weather. Kids can play on ponds, and even in their back yards.

"I know we did that growing up," Rafalski says. "You go down to a little park, and the city would flood it in Wyandotte there, and a lot of people have outdoor rinks. I think it even continues today. I always hear a lot of people talking about their rinks in the back yard, and getting them ready, and I think that allows the kids a lot of opportunity to get better."

Michigan State University hockey coach Rick Comley led the Spartans to the national championship three years ago. He says collegiate hockey gets lots of TV exposure in Michigan, and it's also a plus that the Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup four times in the last 13 years. Kids start to play early here, he says, adding that the quality of coaching at the youth level is high.

"You know, whether it's high school hockey, whether it's minor hockey, the minor midget, the major midget as they now call them," Comley says, "all have coaches who are very experienced and do a very good job."

Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings is a start em at a young age' guy. On the day we talked, he was anxious to get to his son's hockey game.

"It's my little guy," Rafalski says, "my five year old's first year playing on a team, so, he's enjoying it, and in a few more years, it'll be my job to tote him around."

Who knows? Maybe the young Rafalski will play in the Olympics like his dad some day. And some other kid, like nine year old Lansing Capitals Squirt A defenseman Logan Faustyn, will cheer him on.

"USA! USA! USA!," Faustyn cheers.