For a country that claims to be the best in the world, it certainly loves to play underdog in sporting spectacles.
That narrative extended to ice hockey when a bunch of college kids took down the Soviet Union’s seasoned professionals in the 1980 Olympic semifinals en route to a gold medal. That battle went down as one of the greatest upsets in the sports history, and was aptly dubbed the “Miracle on Ice.”
Americans in hockey continue to battle today, immensely outnumbered by their skilled combatants from north of the border.
Of the top 50 scorers in the National Hockey League as of Tuesday, only six hail from the United States of America.
Naturally, high scoring is associated with skill and the ability to dazzle the opponent and fans with stickhandles, dangles, snipes, etc. And by extension, experts, diehard fans and casual hockey observers alike judge a player by his skill.
That’s not how Americans do it, at least that’s not how one American Penn State player got to where he is today.
Nittany Lions junior forward David Goodwin hails from Des Peres, Missouri, stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs 190 pounds. He leads his team in points and assists, but he and his coach will not primarily cite skill as the reason to Goodwin’s success.
Goodwin — much like the American players he looks up to, and the college kids who took down an empire — wins battles. He’s more than willing to go in the corners, in front of the net, behind the goal line, jostle with the opposition, and do whatever he can to get the puck on his teammates’ sticks.
Lions coach Guy Gadowsky has taken notice.
“Boy, is he winning battles,” Gadowsky said, shaking his head with an exhale. “He’s increased his battles more than any other guy we’ve ever had….That’s a big part of what he does to be successful and allowed him to play on the line last year [with Casey Bailey and Taylor Holstrom]. He’s not the biggest guy but he still manages to win so many battles.”
If Goodwin’s narrative sounds familiar to hockey fans, that’s because many, many American hockey players need to do that to make the NHL. Case and point, Ryan Kesler of the Anaheim Ducks. The Livonia, Michigan native wrote in Friday’s Players’ Tribune on this very subject. Hockey players in America don’t grow up playing the same game as their Canadian counterparts, who play on “perfect frozen ponds,” with “warm cocoa,” Kesler wrote.
Kesler is one of the players that Goodwin looks up to who embodies that gritty, American hockey persona.
“He’s a warrior. He’s a leader,” Goodwin said. “The guys on his team really respect him. That 200-foot game is super important, especially for someone like me if I want to have a chance to play at the next level. I know that [if] I’m not skilled enough or a good enough shot, that that’s going to get me there. I know I have to be a complete player.”
Kesler continued to write that his dad would preach, “It’s not going to be the most skillful guys who make it to the NHL. It’s going to be the guys who want it the most.” The Ducks’ centerman was cut from three AAA teams growing up, but found a way to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes and eventually become a first-round pick for the Vancouver Canucks in 2003.
Goodwin can relate to not seeing his name on the final roster.
“I’ve been cut many times in my life, especially when I was younger and all the kids my age were bigger than me and stronger than me, Goodwin said.” I just wasn’t able to keep up. I had to play on the team below me and a tier lower. It motivated me and really began my process of working harder off the ice, and kind of knowing what it takes to excel past those bigger and stronger guys.”
A player like Goodwin would make Kesler proud. They both play the American way — winning battles, showing resiliency, and outworking the opposition.
“American hockey, to me, is blue-collar,” Kesler said. “It’s about doing the things that nobody else is willing to do. Make the dirty play. Make the play that hurts.”
But make no mistake, Goodwin embodies another very American trait — he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“You got to have fun,” Goodwin said. “You’re playing 365 days a year, it’s easy to get burnt out. If you’re going out there and not having fun with your buddies and playing around, your career can be short-lived.”