Veteran and experienced are two words not often associated with an Under-20 hockey team. After all, everyone on the team is … well … still a teenager. How can you call a teenager a veteran? And how much experience can a teenager have?
Yet that is exactly the makeup of the United States team heading into the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s a veteran team with lots of international experience and, more importantly, lots of gold medal-winning international experience.
USA Hockey has been on a roll lately, winning the Under-18 World Championship in 2009 and 2010 and winning the Under-20 title in 2010.
“It’s huge for us,” forward Ryan Bourque said. “It started with the Under-18 when we won gold on home ice for the first time since 1980. Then ’92s also won last year and we won World Juniors and then the U.S. accomplishment in the Olympics. I think USA Hockey has come a real long way and it says a lot for our program and our country as a whole.”
This means the current team is made up of a heavy dose of players from those gold-medal winners.
“We have a lot of guys bringing back gold medals and a lot of international experience,” goaltender Jack Campbell said. “And not only myself. We’re bringing back eight guys from last year’s team. We’re trying to do the best we can to help the new guys make sure they know what’s going to happen in the tournament and make sure we are well prepared going in.”
Campbell and Denver forward Jason Zucker, have the chance to win four gold medals in three years. Both were the only players on all three teams mentioned above.
The other players from last year’s team includes Chris Kreider (Boston College) and Jerry D’Amigo (ECAC rookie of the year while at Rensselaer last season) who each tied for the team lead in goals in last year’s tournament with six in seven games. Kreider was also the youngest player on the U.S. men’s team in the World Championship.
Other forwards include Bourque, Jeremy Morin and former Notre Dame skater Kyle Palmieri. The only returning defenseman is John Ramage (Wisconsin) who got three assists and had a plus-5 rating.
Six of those players were on one or both of the Under-18 gold-medal teams. In addition, goaltender Andy Iles (Cornell) and defenders Justin Faulk (Minnesota-Duluth), Derek Forbort (North Dakota) and Jon Merrill (Michigan) were also on those younger teams. Plus, four players (D’Amigo, Nick Leddy, Morin and Palmieri) have professional experience, playing in either the AHL or NHL, or both.
Past is familiar
Just about every American hockey fan knows last year’s story by now. After Canada won the World Junior Championship five years in a row, USA stunned the hosts last year with a wild 6-5 overtime victory in the gold-medal game. Now, Team USA has the target on its back, not just as the defending champs, but playing on home ice.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier or harder,” Campbell said. “It’s just another challenge. It’s a little bit of adversity being the defending champion against the team that won it five straight years. I’m really excited about the team we’re bringing to Buffalo.”
The last, and only, time an American team defended the gold medal, it too was on home ice in 2005 at Grand Forks, N.D. The U.S. fared poorly, going 3-4 overall, losing in the bronze-medal game. The Americans allowed 4.0 goals per game, tied for third worst among the 10 teams.
“We want our team to play together as a team, focus on the game, and play as well as they can play on game nights,” U.S. coach Keith Allain said about trying to avoid a repeat of 2005.
On paper, the Americans are in the easier of two groups, with their two toughest opponents coming up first — Finland (Dec. 26) and Slovakia (Dec. 28). They then face Germany (Dec. 30) and Switzerland (Dec. 31). Meanwhile, the other group is stacked with powers Canada, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, as well as Norway.
With the tournament being held a stone’s throw from Ontario, it is no surprise organizers are reporting 65 percent of the sales are to Canadians. If the two teams meet, it might not be such a home ice advantage for the Americans. However, therein lies a fear for the organizers and most fans. What happens if the anticipated rematch between the two North American countries does not transpire?
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for them, but there’s also other great countries we have to be concerned about,” said Bourque, who committed to New Hampshire before signing to play in major juniors. “If we do play them, it will be in the semifinals or finals. I think we’ll worry about what we have to do first, and if we do have to play them, we’ll focus on that.
“Obviously, Canada is a very competitive country, and they want to be the best. They will come out and try to take back the medal. But we’re the same way. We think we’re a very competitive group as well. We want to defend our championship, though it’s hard to have a target on our back. We still hope we can come into this tournament and hopefully try to do that.”
So far, Team USA has not exactly instilled confidence in its faithful. The Americans have lost both exhibition games in a shootout (4-3 to Rensselaer and 3-2 to the Czech Republic).
“We’re certainly a long way from our finished product, and I think that was evident tonight,” Allain, also the coach at Yale, said after the Czech Republic game. “I think it dispels any notion that we’re favored, that’s for damn sure.”
One of the reasons for the poor week leading into the tournament could be that the lineups were constantly changing while the coaches decided on the final roster. Players also were getting used to the system the USA coaches are trying to instill after playing either in college, juniors or the pros for the past few months.
And, of course, there’s the task of meshing the team together into a coherent unit on such short notice.
“We’re 0-2,” Allain said. “We got some work to do. I like my team. Don’t get me wrong. I really like my team, and I think when push comes to shove we’ll be there at the end. But I don’t see how you can look at these two games and think we’re going to run away with the tournament.”
It will come down to how much of a factor veteran leadership and international experience is for a group of teenagers on the world stage.