Retired NHL stars lead U.S. at Worlds

LONDON (AP) — Mark Johnson and Neal Broten worked magic 18 years ago for the United States, conjuring up the “miracle on ice” at the Lake Placid Olympics.
They’re back together again in a U.S. uniform, this time on a mission to save the Americans from the scrap heap of international hockey.
With NHL players unavailable, three retired old-timers — Johnson, 41, Broten, 38, and future NHL Hall of Famer Joe Mullen, 41 — lead the Americans as they open a three-game World Championship qualifying series Thursday at Klagenfurt, Austria.
Relying on Europe-based players, the Americans face favorite Kazakhstan, Estonia and Austria. The top two qualify for the 16-team World Championship in May in Norway. In nearby Ljubljana, Slovenia, Germany, Ukraine, France and Slovenia face off in another group.
The four non-qualifiers fall into Group B of world hockey with also-rans like Hungary and Denmark. The Americans were last in that secondary division in 1983.
This tournament doesn’t jeopardize American participation in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The U.S. team qualifies automatically as host.
But it has psychological and even moral overtones.
It’s been a horrible year for American hockey. There was the infamous room-trashing at the Nagano Olympics — the guilty never confessed. Three months later, without a single Olympic team member, the United States finished an embarrassing 12th at the World Championship in Switzerland, a result which forced the Americans into this week’s qualifying.
“It put a black eye on all players in the United States,” Johnson said of the Olympics during a telephone interview Monday. “With the entire world watching it had a big impact. It was disappointing.”
“Then what happened last spring in the world championship left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” added Johnson, an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin and an 11-season NHL player. “Maybe this can be the start of going in the right direction again.”
Played in May at the height of the NHL season, the World Championship is always plagued by the absence of North American stars. Jeff Jackson, who coached the Americans last year, was blunt.
“The event has no respect in the United States,” he said.
Maybe not, but other world hockey powers such as Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic take it seriously.
“We know the USA is a great hockey country and it would be unfortunate to lose them from the top group,” said Kimmo Leinonen, spokesman for the IIHF, hockey’s governing body. “Maybe these older guys will bring that the spirit of that 1980 team.”
Broten, describing himself as “75 percent in shape,” has been practicing for three weeks at home in Minnesota with brothers Aaron and Paul, retired NHL players who also are on the team.
Broten is only playing because his brothers are.
“I really haven’t skated much for a year and a half,” said Broten, who retired in ’97 after 18 seasons in the NHL. “We’re not going to out-skate or out-shoot or out-pass ’em. We’ll just have to out-smart em.”
Unlike Neal Broten, Johnson has been working out since August and skates daily. Like Broten, he isn’t looking for a leading role.
“I wouldn’t anticipate a lot of ice time. We’re going in support and maybe provide some leadership,” he said. “Sure, and if you like, add some memories.”
The team is coached by Ben Smith, who took the U.S. women to Olympic gold in Nagano.
“We hope that will rub off,” said Darryl Seibel, spokesman for USA Hockey.
Of the 23 players on the roster, seven — including Neal Broten and Johnson — played in the Olympics. The others are forwards David Emma, John Lilley, Corey Millen, and defensemen Greg Brown and Chris Imes.
About a dozen have NHL experience. Most are playing in leagues in Germany, Britain, Slovenia, Finland and Austria, with one college player (Jason Blake, University of North Dakota) and two from the American Hockey League.
And then there’s Mullen. In 17 NHL seasons, he became the top scorer among American-born players with 502 goals and 561 assists in 1,062 games.
“When we were growing up you dreamed about playing for your country in events like this,” Johnson said. “The younger players need to know that these tournaments often are inconvenient, but when the country needs help, you ought to be there.”