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Returning Coaches, Players Key to U.S. at World Jr. A Challenge

By John Tranchina, 12/11/19, 10:45AM EST


Junior Select Team to lean on experience in seeking to repeat as champions

For the World Jr. A Challenge, which takes place Dec. 7-15 in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, the U.S. Junior Select Team will rely on experience in pursuit of claiming the gold medal in back-to-back years.

Team USA’s entire coaching staff, led by head coach Anthony Noreen, is back from last year, while three key players also return from the 2018 champions: forwards Connor Caponi and Grant Silianoff, and defenseman Mitch Miller.

“I think it certainly helps this year having three guys back that played on the team last year,” said Noreen, head coach of the United States Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm. “You’ve got Grant Silianoff, Mitchell Miller and Connor Caponi, who were all big parts of that team last year, and I think they’ve done a great job leadership-wise with this group so far, just taking what they learned from that team last year and bringing it to this one. I think that’s been a big part of the team coming together early.”

The Americans won their pre-tournament contest Thursday night, defeating Canada East 6-0, but as Noreen pointed out, they also won their pre-tournament contest last year (3-1 over Canada East), and then proceeded to lose their first preliminary round game two days later, 2-1 to Canada West in a shootout. This year was a different story, as they won their first preliminary game, 3-2, against Canada West and beat the Czech Republic on Monday in overtime.

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He believes his experience from last year, when he had the same coaching staff in assistants Mark Abalan, Shane Fukushima and David Wilkie, will only help this time around when facing similar situations.

“We talked about the areas of our game that maybe weren’t as sharp coming out of training camp and that we could tighten up, and we talked about maybe trying some different line combinations and D pairs and things like that early, to try and find the right combos earlier, that took us a couple of games to get to last year,” Noreen said.

“The biggest thing for me is, ‘How can the message be set and the tone be set right away with this group, so they’re totally clear on what the expectations are from them as people and from them as players once they’re here?’ There needs to be that level of clarity so there’s no gray area and they know what it is and then they can just feed off it and build as the tournament goes.”

As for the returning players, Noreen expects them to provide valuable leadership, which he feels they have already started to implement, as the group goes through the process of transforming from a bunch of individuals to a close-knit team. The fact that the players, who all come from the USHL, the only Tier I junior hockey league in the country, are normally battling against each other as rivals means having to quickly develop chemistry on and off the ice.

“Being back at this tournament again, being able to wear USA on your chest again, is a huge privilege,” said Miller, 17, who also plays for Noreen at Tri-City. “I would just say that the group of guys need to get close fast, so that everyone can have chemistry together. All the team-bonding stuff we do here [is important], going to practice and communicating with each other in the locker room after practice and getting to know each other a little better.”

Noreen feels that having that prior experience will be beneficial to both himself as a coach and to Miller, Caponi and Silianoff as well, because they know how high the level of competition is in this tournament.

“It’s better than anything they’ve ever played at in their lives, and it’s a different type of game,” Noreen said. “Certain countries play different styles, you just kind of have to take what the game gives you. Sometimes, there’s plays to be made, sometimes there aren’t, we’ve got to be mature about it and just play the game the right way. And I think having those guys that were there last year — we got better as the [tournament] went, we were playing our best hockey by the gold-medal game. It started with everyone being on board, being engaged in every meeting, being engaged in every practice, and those guys coming together as a team.

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“It’s basically a full season condensed into two weeks. So right now, we got through our exhibition season and training camp, now it’s the start of the regular season, and you hope that by playoff time or the medal round, that you’re peaking and you’re the best version of yourself as a team. And to me, that starts in the locker room, and that starts with the culture and how tight those guys are as a unit.”

One thing that Noreen stresses is having everyone adhere to the team-first concept, especially because the players usually have to accept lesser roles than what they’re used to playing on their USHL squads.

“The biggest challenge for us as a staff is, how do you take a group of great players and turn them into a great team in a short amount of time?” Noreen said. “And the biggest key to that is, you’ve got guys who are coming from teams where they’re all on the power play, and they’re all on the first line or the first D pair and they’re all playing a ton of minutes. And at the end of the day, the biggest thing for us is there can’t be any personal agendas. It’s got to be what’s best for the team at all times and the sooner we can get to that as a group and stick to that, you give yourself a chance.”

Miller, who is from Sylvania, Ohio, acknowledged that it’s not such a difficult notion to sacrifice individual accolades for the team’s benefit.

“I think the guys are handling it well,” he said of adjusting to new roles. “We’re here for one reason and one reason only, to win the gold medal, so I think everyone knows their role. If they’re not playing as much, I think they understand, just because as a team, we want to win the gold medal. It’s not about us [individually].”

While Team USA enjoys its status of gold medal favorites as the defending champions, and because they’ve won gold in this tournament five times in the previous seven years (eight times overall), the players don’t feel additional pressure. They welcome the high expectations.

“I don’t feel pressure, it’s just a good test for us,” Miller said. “I think we definitely have the group and the skill and definitely the coaches, but I don’t think it’s pressure. I think as long as we play our game and become close as a group, I think we’ll do fine.”

Team USA continues the preliminary round on Wednesday night against Canada East. They round out preliminary play on Friday against Russia, with the semifinals taking place Saturday, Dec. 14 and the gold medal game on Sunday, Dec. 15.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

U.S. Schedule

Date Opponent/Round Result Location Broadcast/Streaming U.S. Player of the Game
Thur., Dec. 5 Canada East
W, 6-0
Chetwynd Rec Centre
Chetwynd, B.C.
Live Stream
Sat., Dec. 7 Canada West
W, 3-2
Encana Events Centre
Dawson Creek, B.C.
Live Stream
Brendan Brisson
Mon., Dec. 9 Czech Republic
OTW, 5-4
Encana Events Centre
Dawson Creek, B.C.
Live Stream
Gunnarwolfe Fontaine
Wed., Dec. 11 Canada East
W, 7-3 North Peace Arena
Fort St. John, B.C.
No Stream Brendan Brisson
Fri., Dec. 13 Russia
W, 7-2 Encana Events Centre
Dawson Creek, B.C.
Live Stream
Josh Lopina
Sat., Dec. 14 Canada East
SOL, 1-2
Encana Events Centre
Dawson Creek, B.C.
Live Stream
Logan Stein
Sun., Dec. 15 Czech Republic
Third-Place Game
OTW, 2-1
Encana Events Centre
Dawson Creek, B.C.
TSN Ethan Haider

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