BOSTON — With just a few days remaining before the start of the World Junior Championship, Team USA general manager Jim Johannson has a few difficult decisions to make to get his roster down to the tournament maximum of 23 players.
As difficult as those choices will be, one relatively easy decision made long ago by the 14-year USA Hockey veteran was the selection of his team’s head coach. For that, he tabbed former Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki, who is in his second season as associate head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.
2015 World Junior Championship
United States schedule:
Friday, Dec. 26: U.S. 2, Finland 1 (SO)
Sunday, Dec. 28: U.S. 6, Germany 0
Monday, Dec. 29: U.S. 3, Slovakia 0
Wednesday, Dec. 31: Canada 5, U.S. 3
Friday, Jan. 2: Quarterfinals: Russia 3, U.S. 2
A three-time assistant for Team USA at this tournament, Osiecki worked under Dean Blais in 2010 and Phil Housley in 2013, each time taking home gold on foreign soil. Add a bronze medal as an assistant under Keith Allain in Buffalo in 2011 and you have one of the most decorated American coaches in IIHF history.
“In the end it was a really easy decision,” Johannson said. “Mark’s experience, he’s been to the World Juniors three times and he has two gold medals and a bronze medal. All three cases, when he came as an assistant coach the very first words out of the head coach to me was, ‘I’ve got to have Ozzie with me.’ He’s a guy who completely understands the tournament.”
Johannson and the American team hope that experience translates on the ice as Team USA looks to avenge a quarterfinals loss a year ago and return the nation to the medal platform.
For Osiecki, the chance to lead Team USA is “humbling.” But he also looks at it as a chance to further contribute to the hockey history of the country.
“All of us in the U.S. who are coaching want to have that opportunity to give back to USA Hockey,” said Osiecki. “This was a great opportunity to be able to give back and do that.”
The experience Osiecki brings is interesting. Outside of his role with past World Junior teams, he was a successful assistant at Wisconsin before his three years leading Ohio State. Now with a season and a half under his belt with the AHL team in Rockford, Osiecki has many facets of coaching experience.
How that translates in a short tournament like the World Juniors is hard to measure, which brings you back to his role in the three U.S. medal winners.
Osiecki said that all of those teams had some indelible characteristics that he hopes can be part of Team USA this year.
“A common denominator with all three of those teams was the leadership,” Osiecki said. “Unbelievable leaders, not just one player. The leadership group on those three teams was outstanding.
“The character on all three of those teams was also incredible. Not one kid on those teams needed credit. They were happy to see other people get credit and do well. This tournament is such a high level of skill that any team can win.”
Johannson agreed and said that finding players who are versatile is a major part of his recruiting strategy for the team.
“A lot of the conversation comes down to, from a coaching standpoint, how are you going to use the player?” said Johannson. “That’s where the versatility comes from. You can’t control the injuries, so if a guy is limited to what he does well and can’t fit into other areas, that makes it more difficult for a coach to figure out how he’s going to use him.”
The 30 players who competed all week in Boston at the team’s training camp also had some on-ice characteristics that Osiecki relishes. The most obvious to this staff was the speed that was on display a number of times on Friday night as Team USA skated fluidly past the nation’s No. 1 college team, Boston University, in a 5-2 victory.
“We felt it on the ice,” Osiecki said of his team’s overall speed. “When you’re down on the ice skating with them you feel it. But the [staff] upstairs came downstairs after practice and we did a little debriefing and they said you noticed it right when they stepped on the ice.”
Osiecki also loves his team’s tenacious puck possession and its ability to control the puck once that possession occurs. “They have a gift to have the puck and maintain the puck,” Osiecki quipped.
With the Boston training camp in the rear-view mirror, cuts will be made before the team travels to Kingston, Ontario, for a second camp, where among practices the team will take on Germany and Sweden in pre-tournament exhibitions.
The tournament kicks off for Team USA in round-robin play at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Dec. 26 against Finland (3 p.m. ET, NHL Network).
It is the Kingston camp where Osiecki will really learn what type of team he has and can truly begin building the chemistry between lines, defensive pairings and throughout the locker room.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Osiecki said after Friday’s win. “Our expectations are high and we’re going to hold the kids accountable in terms of what our goals are, what our expectations are.
“Boston was a good first step. There are little things we’ve talked about. Our character, our identity. We can certainly pull [Friday’s] film and find ways to improve on it.”