For Scott Sandelin, the thrill of representing your country at an international tournament does not diminish over the years, and it’s as big of a thrill behind the bench as it is on the ice.
After suiting up for the United States as a player in the 1984 IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden, Sandelin returned as the head coach in 2005. He also served as an assistant coach in 2012, as well as last year when the U.S. claimed silver.
“I think any time you have that opportunity as a player or coach, it’s a great honor,” said Sandelin, who will be behind the Americans’ bench as their World Juniors head coach this year. “Certainly, having done it before, and obviously as recently as last year being on the staff, I’m excited about the opportunity again. It’s a lot of continuity with our staff, too, so I’m excited to work with those guys and the group that we have. It’s a great honor.”
Sandelin is optimistic about this year’s team, as the Americans try to win their first gold since 2017 and their fifth consecutive medal. He believes a strong foundation was set for the team at the World Junior Summer Showcase that was held from July 26-Aug. 3.
The showcase, which took place at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., home of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, gave Sandelin and his coaching staff the opportunity to evaluate many potential players for the upcoming tournament.
“We got a good look at a lot of players,” said Sandelin, who also coaches two-time defending NCAA national champion University of Minnesota-Duluth. “I thought we got better as the Showcase went on and I really liked the fact that we finished well with a win against Canada. It was a great hockey game and our guys played well, so I think that was a good way to end the camp. I think throughout the Summer Showcase, you’re trying to find out a little more about your team and what you have.”
Based on the performance of certain players at the Summer Showcase, Sandelin believes Team USA will have a little bit of everything. However, due to some players playing well professionally, the final roster may look different than the summer showcase teams. The preliminary roster for Team USA was announced on December 9.
“Certainly, we had a lot of younger players, very talented players,” Sandelin said. “We had some older guys too, so I think when you look at our team, obviously, there’s some guys that were there, like Farabee or Wahlstrom, that we don’t know if they’re going to be available. It’d be great if they are, because they’re older guys, but I would say after that, I think our forward group is probably going to be a little bit younger, but talented. I think our back end will probably be a little bit older. I like where our goaltending is at, with our prospects there, and I think we’re going to be a four-line team that’s going to have good depth."
The tournament has changed a lot since Sandelin led the U.S. to a fourth-place finish on home ice in 2005 in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, and even more since his first experience at the WJC as a defenseman in 1984.
“I hadn’t played in it since ’84 when I was wearing Cooperalls,” said Sandelin, who earned one assist in seven games as the U.S. went 2-5 and finished sixth that year. “Obviously, the tournament is huge right now. I think for me, one of the [biggest changes is] how big the tournament’s gotten. And secondly, how good the players are. It’s such a competitive tournament in a short time, but just having gone through that a few times, I feel like I’m more prepared as a coach.
“Last year was a great year, we came up a little short, it was a lot of fun. I experienced 2012 when we were playing in the relegation round and that was not fun, but I think it’s something as a coach, you go in there and you try to manage your team as best you can, and really try and get them to become a team. There’s no question the experience helps, having gone through it and knowing how to manage certain things, whether it’s rest or practices within the tournament — all those things that go along with it. I think that’s a big difference from maybe my first time, and just having been on different staffs and going through all that.”
That past experience has helped Sandelin determine some of the keys to helping a group of players from far-flung sources mesh together and gel as a team in a short tournament. This year, the team will hold its first practice on Dec. 16 in Plymouth and will play its first official game just 10 days later in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
“Number one, everyone says you want to try to get your group to really come together quickly — sometimes that’s easier said than done, obviously,” Sandelin said. “I think leadership is a critical component. You need a good leadership group that maybe has been through it, and we have some guys that have – maybe not a lot, but we do have a lot of guys that have played internationally.
“I think for us, too, not really over-coaching, kind of following through on some of the things we tried to instill in our group in the summer and obviously making whatever adjustments we need to make. Getting the team to come together, you need good leadership and with the kids we have, I really liked what I saw this summer.”
For Sandelin, the tone will be set with the opening game on Dec. 26 against Canada. The U.S. also faces Germany, Russia and the hometown Czech Republic in the preliminary round of the tournament in Group B.
“Obviously, the key is to get off to a good start,” he said. “There’s not a lot of games. I think that the pool we’re in is one of the tougher ones, and starting out with the first game, we obviously want to win that game and put ourselves in a good spot moving forward.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.