Union head coach Nate Leaman was sitting in his hotel room in Mora, Sweden. Currently an assistant with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, Leaman has done a ton of work for both his program at home, getting it ready to compete this season, and for USA Hockey by assisting head coach Ron Rolston to select and shape this year’s entry at the WJCs.
That puts stress on Leaman because of the battles he fights for Union on the recruiting front, as well as in competition with a consistently improving conference. However, the experience of representing his country coupled with such a grandiose team-building experience only bode well for him and his program.
“It confirms what I have always believed, and that is work ethic and execution win games,” said Leaman, who has seen Team USA give two strong efforts despite two losses. “What has hurt is our lack of finish.”
The Americans were trapped to no end against Germany and lost in OT. Then they were beaten by a Canadian squad which feels that anything less than a gold medal (Canada is the two-time defending champion at this tourney) is a total failure. Canada remembers a gold medal-game loss to Mike Eaves’ crew in Finland in ’03.
“We really finished well in our pre-tourney exhibitions and we have struggled in our first two games,” said Leaman. “We hit four posts against Germany, and then missed an empty net. If you hit four posts in one tourney you are unlucky. But to hit four in one game?”
What has eluded the Americans, and what they are striving for in their Saturday game against Slovakia, is the first goal. On a team loaded with talent, scoring was not seen as a problem, but as Leaman pointed out, the two goalies they have faced are one-two in goals against average in the tourney, and hot goaltending wins short tourneys. The heroics of Al Montoya three tourneys ago are still fresh in Canada’s memory, as Montoya helped the Americans K.O. the Canadians to win gold.
The squad, led by a ton of WCHA’ers in Kyle Okposo, Mike Carman and No. 1 overall pick (’06 draft) Erik Johnson of Minnesota. That core is well supported by Badgers Blake Geoffrion and Jack Skille, Michigan State phenom Justin Abdelkader, and Jimmy Fraser of Harvard.
“No one really realizes behind the scenes what a great leader Fraser is,” said Leaman, who was an assistant at Harvard prior to Fraser’s arrival in Cambridge. “Kyle Lawson (Notre Dame) is also an outstanding leader.”
Leaman points to one of Team USA’s three major junior players as someone fans should be keeping an eye on. Buffalo, N.Y., native Patrick Kane, who skates for the OHL’s London Knights, is draft-eligible in 2007 and has scouts excited about his NHL potential. Kane, with his ’88 birth year, is considered by Leaman to be the team’s best pure talent.
“However, what really impresses me is that tourney-wide, every player is really good,” Leaman said after watching the Slovaks play Thursday. “The Slovaks have a really good third line. Two of them executed a great two-on-one tonight. These Europeans are very talented. All have great stick skills and they can all shoot, lines one through four are very balanced.”
For Team USA, the talent must shine in game three. The team does not lack players who have been on the international stage, as most of them have been through the U.S. NDTP program or were on last year’s team.
“We have a lot of experience on our roster, guys who know what to expect in international play,” said Leaman. “Right now I am pretty positive. There is a lot left to play. However, one bad game really costs you. In college you can outshoot someone 39-16 and lose, but not at the World Juniors. We need to get on the board early; that will really help with our confidence.”
An interesting side note to all of this is the USA-Canada matchup, with Canada’s team of mostly major junior kids versus the U.S. team of mostly NCAA players. The rivalry for players between these two great development systems, and what is considered “the best route” to the NHL, has existed for the past 26 years since the USA won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics.
Do the Americans and Canadians feel anything more in that game considering the makeup of the teams? Not according to Leaman.
“Canada’s two best players are college guys, Jonathan Toews and Andrew Cogliano. They have six great ‘D,’ but their top guys up front are Toews and Cogliano.”