A Long Time Coming

Thirteen years ago this week, on a windy Canadian night, it was so cold outside that Fahrenheit had actually met Celsius. I was sitting, warm and cozy in a blue Team USA parka, toward the front of a yellow and green chartered bus. As we barreled through light snow on the thin ribbon of concrete across the frozen, dark and treeless Saskatchewan prairie on a road the locals call the “Yellowhead Highway,” a distant radio voice crackled on the bus speaker system.

“Canada and Russia are all tied up with the World Junior Gold Medal at stake!” screamed the radio voice, and it seemed we could hear all 12,000 people cheering wildly in the background at the distant SaskPlace Arena.

The 30 passengers on that bus, all dressed in shiny blue parkas, listened very intently to the radio broadcast. They comprised the 1991 United States National Junior Team — 22 players, all under 20 years old, and eight older coaches and team staffers. I was one of the staffers. We were speeding back to Saskatoon after winning our own final tournament game that afternoon in Regina, a few hours south of Saskatoon. The way the World Junior Tournament was structured at that time, there was no medal round, only a round-robin format, and we were done. The 4-2-1 record that Team USA had fashioned that year was its best-ever record in the tourney up to that time. And the result of that Canada-Russia game on the radio would determine whether or not we would receive a bronze medal. If Russia won, the bronze would be ours, and if Canada won, the Czech Republic would win bronze.

The Team USA players, of course, were cheering on every rise in the inflection of the CBC radio announcer’s voice whenever the Russians threatened the Canadian net, especially when the announcer mentioned the words “Pavel Bure.” And every time the announcer said “Eric Lindros,” the Americans’ fists would open and close a little tighter. They weren’t the only ones who were nervous and excited. The USA coaching staff — Kevin Constantine, Walt Kyle and Bob O’Conner, were sitting in silence at the front of the bus, working on killing off a huge pack of chewing gum between them. And those of us on the support staff were also feeling the knots in our stomachs.

It was won in a practice rink called The Cube in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in the USA Hockey office building in Colorado Springs and in hundreds of other college and junior hockey arenas around the country, wherever the hard-working players, coaches and administrators toil to develop the American hockey player.

The American team that year was a hard-working bunch of kids that had tied favored Canada in a thriller, beat up on Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Norway, and lost to Russia and the Czechs. Some on our U.S. team would go on to NHL stardom and multi-million dollar contracts — Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Mike Dunham. Others would become NHL regular role players like Ken Klee, Scott Lachance, Trent Klatt, Bill Lindsay, Brian Rolston, Ian Moran, Aaron Miller and Craig Johnson. Still others would have mixed careers of NHL, minor league and European play — Ted Drury, Derek Plante, Pat Neaton, and Jim Storm. And some would never experience the bright lights of the NHL at all — Chris Gotziaman, Chris Imes, Bryan Ganz, Mike Doers, Brent Brekke, Mike Heinke and Tony Burns. But that night, on that bus, we were one team, hoping for a piece of jewelry we could call our own.

As we approached the SaskPlace arena, the team readied for a quick exit to drop their equipment off and catch the dying minutes of the Canada-Russia game. As the USA players ran down the outdoor service ramp to ice level, the arena erupted into wild celebration as 12,000 fans shot out of their seats. In the last seconds of regulation time, defenseman John Slaney had uncorked a wicked slap shot that found the back of the net giving Canada a 3-2 victory, and the gold medal. Russia had won silver, and the Czechs, bronze.

The USA would go home without a medal after all.

As the hometown Canadian crowd stood, cheered and waved the familiar red and white maple leaf flags, the Canadian team received their gold medals. The US players watched in stunned silence. One of the US coaches turned to me and said, “Someday, that’s going to be us.”

That “someday” finally came 13 years later, last week in Helsinki, Finland.

The Americans, who had but three medals in 27 years of trying, finally did it in 2004, defeating Canada, 4-3, for the World Junior gold medal.

There are many, particularly north of the border, who believe that this American gold medal was a fluke, that it came as a result of Canadian goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s errant clearing pass late in the game that cost Canada gold. They will tell you that Canada deserved to win that game.

They are wrong.

The truth is the USA elevated their game and earned every bounce they got. The Yanks went 6-0 in the tourney, and outhustled, outhit and outplayed the Canadians in the third period when the game, and the gold medal, was on the line. And that night in Helsinki, as the USA players and coaches received their gold medals, it was Canada’s turn to stand in stunned silence and watch for a change.

The US National Junior Team of 2004 had finally done what 400 other American junior players, including future Hall of Famers like Mike Modano, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, could not do as juniors. The USA had finally filled that one glaring hole on its international hockey resume, and had shown the hockey world that it could win gold with more than just its 1933 World Champions, its 1960 and 1980 Miracle Olympians, its 1996 World Cup NHLers or its 1998 Women’s Olympians.

For all the greatness of those 22 players who today wear the gold, let us remember, that game was not just won on the ice in Helsinki.

It was won in a practice rink called The Cube in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in the USA Hockey office building in Colorado Springs and in hundreds of other college and junior hockey arenas around the country, wherever the hard-working players, coaches and administrators toil to develop the American hockey player. Guys like Art Berglund, an administrator who takes almost every US National Junior Team overseas and probably hasn’t had a Christmas at home in the last 25 years.

And for every Mike Eaves, there’s a Dean Blais, a Red Berenson and a ‘Toot’ Cahoon. And all the other college and junior coaches who had a hand in these guys’ development. Let’s also not forget the 44 mothers and fathers who created and nurtured those boys through all those early morning practices, and the brothers, sisters, dogs and neighborhood kids that took the occasional rising slapshot off their foreheads in the basement or driveway. And all those registrars, trainers, doctors, equipment managers, Zamboni drivers, youth coaches, and PR people who labor in relative obscurity to help American players get better. I know how hard these people work, because I was once one of them. I’ve seen the long hours they put in, a labor of love for the sake of the game.

Years from now, I’ll remember Zach Parise’s smile, Patrick O’Sullivan’s goal and Al Montoya’s steadfast play in the nets whenever I talk about American hockey’s golden moments. But I’ll also remember the team that I was a part of — that 1991 team that didn’t win a medal — and the 26 other US junior teams that never tasted gold. And all those who supported them.

They deserve a medal, too.

Tom Douglis, former editor of College Hockey Magazine, was also the Public Relations Coordinator for USA Hockey from 1990-1992.