Ten weeks. That’s how long USA Hockey staff has until the puck is dropped in Edmonton, Alberta, for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, an event that includes the best players in the world under the age of 20 from 10 counties.
Over the past six days coaches, scouts and staff evaluated 42 candidates in contention to make the final 23-player U.S. National Junior Team roster in a bubble-like environment at USA Hockey Arena in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth, Michigan.
“We wanted to start things off right and talk about the identity of the team we want for this tournament,” said U.S. National Junior Team head coach Nate Leaman (Providence, R.I.). “I watched games from last year and the year before, and looked for what in my mind what would win this tournament. These tournaments are very different, you get one shot against everyone, so you’re really game planning around the identity of your team.”
Players arrived on Thursday of last week, many having been just selected in the 2020 NHL Draft just 24 hours prior. First round selection Brendan Brisson (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) was down the road in Ann Arbor, Mich., surrounded by his family and University of Michigan teammates, when the Vegas Golden Knights selected him with the 29th overall pick.
Two days later he was unpacking his gear in his USA Hockey locker room stall. When asked how he’s enjoying being on campus as a freshman so far, he laughed.
“Yeah, I’ve got a lot of midterms this week and four essays due tonight, so I’m just going to start grinding,” said Brisson.
It’s a peak into the intersection of life for many of these young athletes: hockey, school work, safety, everything to consider while chasing the dream of putting USA across your chest on an international stage.
In total, 15 players were selected in the 2020 NHL Draft that attended camp. Jake Sanderson (Whitefish, Mon.) and Tyler Kleven (Fargo, N.D.) watched together at Ralph Engelstad Arena as the Ottawa Senators selected the University of North Dakota teammates in the first and second round, respectively.
After two days of practice, coaches and staff had their first opportunity to see everyone perform in five-on-five situations in a simulated two-period game. Both returning goalies Spencer Knight (Darien, Con.) and Dustin Wolf (Gilroy, Calif.) held strong in net forcing a 1-1 tie with two minutes remaining. Thanks to back-to-back breakaway goals, the goalie tandem of Wolf and Drew Commesso (Norwell, Mass.) emerged victorious.
Following the evaluation game, players hosted a special moment for long-time USA Hockey equipment manager Scott Aldrich (Colorado Springs, Colo.). Players surprised Aldrich, better known to everyone in the hockey community as Scooter, with a birthday cake and song to celebrate his 50th birthday. Aldrich recently celebrated his 17-year anniversary with USA Hockey.
Sunday was the first opportunity for coaches and the team to practice special teams. A full two-hour session was dedicated to the power play and penalty kill units. Assistant coaches Ted Donato (Cambridge, Mass.), Kris Mayotte (Ann Arbor, Mich.) and Steve Miller (Columbus, Ohio) led rotating cross-ice stations while Leaman looked on with hockey operations personnel.
Monday and Tuesday included final evaluation games. USA Hockey staff were busier than NHL teams at free agency, trading and rotating players through to get good looks at players in every situation.
In between games, Leaman gave insight to reporters on a media call of how the evaluation process was going.
“The competition here at camp has been great,” said Leaman. “We told guys that we want to get to the net. We’re going up against some of the most elite goaltenders in the world. We showed guys clips individually of how we want them to play, and they went out during our evaluation games and showed us a lot. We learned a lot about some guys that are going to give us very difficult decisions to make.”
Leaman also made note that the USA Hockey coaching family has been extremely helpful with preparing for coaching in a tournament like World Juniors. Bob Motzko, who won a gold and bronze medal as head coach of the U.S. National Junior Team, Mike Hastings, who won a silver medal as head coach, and last year’s head coach Scott Sandelin were just three of the names mentioned as spending hours on the phone with Leaman.
“The common theme is there is a lot of adversity at the tournament, and they all mentioned you need players that are versatile and can do more than one thing,” said Leaman. “I’ve been fortunate to coach in the tournament twice as an assistant, and we have staff that have served in the tournament recently, but that’s the part of the USA coaching fraternity that’s so great. All of these guys have been willing to do anything and everything to help you out, they want to see this team succeed.”
That’s what it will take to succeed: a full team effort.
A lot will happen over the next ten weeks, as staff make final decisions on the U.S. National Junior Team roster. Some players may have the opportunity to play a handful of games with college and club teams over the next two months, but what was shown on the ice at USA Hockey Arena will leave a lasting impression on staff of who can bring energy and urgency to Team USA in accomplishing the ultimate goal of winning a gold medal.