A new standard of excellence was established by the U.S. National Junior Team during the 2004 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.
That was the group that led USA Hockey to its first World Junior Championship title in its history. Current Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler distinctly remembers the feeling.
“It was amazing,” Kesler said. “It was obviously pretty special to be the first and set the precedent for the groups to come.”
Team USA clinched its first World Junior Championship gold medal following a dramatic, come-from-behind, 4-3 victory against Canada in Helsinki and Hameenlinna, Finland. The success wasn’t foreign to the core group, which included Kesler and five others who previously had captured the top spot during the 2002 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship in Slovakia.
“That was really special and we had a great group of guys,” said current Dallas Stars forward Patrick Eaves. “We had success before at the Under-17 and Under-18 level, but to do it on the World Junior stage was huge for us as a group.”
That’s because it was entirely new to the program. The Americans finished fourth a year earlier and had only won three medals – two bronze medals (1986, 1992) and a silver medal (1997) – before finally capturing the elusive gold medal in 2004.
Since then, the U.S. has won two more gold medals (2010 and 2013) in addition to three bronze medals in 2007, 2011 and 2016.
“That was a big breakthrough, I think for the U.S. program on the international stage,” Eaves said. “We had some big wins in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, but to get the breakthrough win in the World Juniors was special and something we worked very hard for.”
The Americans rolled through the preliminary round with a perfect 4-0 record, outscoring the opposition by a 21-4 margin. The semifinal round wasn’t as easy, but the U.S. jumped out to a two-goal lead and held on to advance to the championship for the second time in program history.
That’s where the U.S. faced adversity, falling behind 3-1 against Canada, only to rally with three goals in the third period to win the gold medal.
“We came back from down 3-1 and there were some big goals to be scored,” Kesler said. “At the time, it was a great feeling.”
Patrick O’Sullivan, who spent eight seasons in the NHL with five teams, started the comeback with a goal from Eaves.
“We had a three-on-two rush and I crossed the blue line and saw him on his off side,” Eaves recalled. “I slid it over and he just ripped one.”
Kesler followed with the tying goal and O’Sullivan struck again with the eventual game-winning, and gold medal-clinching, goal.
“[O’Sullivan] is a special, special player,” Eaves said. “I was fortunate enough to play on his line and if you can get the puck to him, something good is going to happen. We just stuck with it and kept pressing as a group.”
It was enough to propel the Americans to an elusive — and first-ever — World Junior Championship gold medal.
“It’s obviously a great tournament and people from all different countries come to play,” Kesler said. “It’s the best against the best at your age group and we finally broke through to win it.”
Current Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise became the first U.S. skater to be named either best forward or tournament MVP after he tied for the scoring lead with five goals and 11 points in six games.
Al Montoya, currently with the Montreal Canadiens, was named the best goaltender, marking the first time two Americans won directorate awards in a single tournament.
Nineteen of the 22 U.S. players went on to reach the National Hockey League, including eight still playing at the highest professional level. In addition, nine other skaters are still playing elsewhere professionally.
“I think it put USA Hockey on the map for kids that want to grow up and play the game,” Kesler said. “It was special.”
It was particularly special for Eaves, whose father Mike was the coach for the team. Captain Mark Stuart, currently with the Winnipeg Jets, also lived with the Eaves family for a period of time in the past.
“To share [the championship] with both of them was really special,” said Patrick Eaves, who called Stuart a brother. “It was pretty cool that we could share that.”
Eaves believes his time within the USA Hockey National Team Development Program allowed for development at a higher rate than normal just because of the strenuous work the athletes put in, including off-ice work like video sessions and weight training. That allowed for greater preparation and accelerated a path to the NHL.
Kesler said the National Team Development Program gave him a base and a foundation for his game.
“Without a good foundation you crumble as a player,” Kesler said. “I think it allowed me to establish my foundation and become the player I am today.”
Moreso, the best part for Eaves was playing hockey with his friends. Winning the program’s first-ever World Junior Championship didn’t hurt either.
“That was my biggest thing,” Eaves said. “We had good people on those teams. It was a good group of people and families and to play with your buddies on the world stage is really fun.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.