Editor’s note: This article is the first of USCHO.com’s features covering the stunning gold-medal performance of the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships.
Last Monday, three players from the Michigan State hockey team experienced one of the biggest thrills of their young lives, perhaps the biggest in their careers.
Sophomore defenseman Corey Potter, sophomore forward David Booth, and freshman netminder Dominic Vicari participated in the World Junior Championships in Finland over the semester break, and each came home with a little extra-special hardware — a gold medal.
Of course, they were tired after a 21-hour plane trip back, and two of them hadn’t even gotten their equipment yet — Potter and Booth practiced on Wednesday and Thursday in old equipment. But the price they had to pay, including Booth’s shaved head (he put the clippers in teammate Vicari’s hands for the team-bonding event) was well worth the reward: being the first Americans to win the gold in the under-20 division.
The U.S. went in as one of the favorites for the tournament, but the Canadians were the team to beat for the gold. Undaunted, the U.S. came back from a two-goal deficit to take the game, and the feeling on the bench got lighter with each goal they scored.
Team U.S.A. was built for winning, Booth said. “[Coach Mike Eaves’] two first lines were top players, and then the next two lines were grinders, guys that just work hard, wear the other team down and eat time off the clock. That’s what he brought me there to do — to wear the other team down and give other guys a rest. You can’t look at just a goal-scorer and say, ‘He won it.'”
Most of the team was already acquainted before just this year’s tournament.
“Team U.S.A. has been together for three years, most of us, and we’ve become great friends, and when you have great companionship on your team and you’ve got a lot of good players from around the world, something’s bound to come out good like that,” Potter said.
It was hardly an easy win for the U.S., however. The red, white, and blue went into the third period looking at a two-goal deficit. Eaves talked to his players between the second and third periods, and had a few words that the players said were their biggest motivation.
“Coach was just talking about how to manufacture goals, and we just all came together as a team and said, ‘Hey, this is your chance. You’ve only got 20 minutes and this is the last time you’re going to put on the red, white, and blue, and do it for your country. That’s just a lot of motivation,” Booth said.
That motivation led the team to a 4-3 victory over Team Canada. Some, like Booth, were confident all along.
“I really thought that we could do it,” he said. “But you’re a little bit worried going into the third [down] 3-1 — Canada hasn’t given up three goals in any games, and to score three goals on an NHL goaltender, you just have your worries, but if you have faith, you can do anything.”
Others, like Potter, were a more concerned.
“There was a little doubt in my mind. Down 3-1 is a pretty big lead, and 20 minutes isn’t much shooting on a good goalie like that, so I had a little bit of doubt,” he confessed.
But then things began looking up as the puck started going in the net.
“Every goal, the bench got louder and louder, and every goal, every player’s intensity stepped up a notch, so after that third goal, I think it was a for-sure win for us,” said Vicari.
Vicari admitted to experiencing a little internal conflict when the fourth goal went in, being simultaneously a goalie and also the opponent on the better side of the fluke goal that gave the U.S. the gold.
“You kind of feel bad because you can relate to [Canadian netminder Marc-Andre] Fleury — just a bad mistake and you wish you would have had that one back, but on the other hand you won.”
At least they all agree on one thing — the experience was one they’ll never forget.
“It’s an experience you can only experience once in a lifetime, and it’ll be with me for the rest of my life. It’s something nobody has ever done before — no U.S.A. squad has done before — that’s what’s really special about it,” Booth said.
Showing off his medal is one thing Vicari likes — a big smile comes over his face as he pulls it out to show it to his fans in East Lansing, Mich.
“It still feels great, every time people ask to see it. It brings back memories of the tournament even though it was only a couple days old.
“The talent was great, everybody got along, we had great leadership and great coaching — it was just a great experience.”
“To represent the U.S.A. and to come out with the gold medal and to beat every other top country around the world is a great feeling. It’s a big character-builder going overseas and playing against competition that’s highly ranked. You come out feeling better about yourself, to come out with a gold medal.”
Potter offered a challenge to those U.S. teams which come after his, the first to win the gold.
“We made the shoes — now they’ve just got to fill them.”