After spending more time away from hockey than a normal summer, the players who will ultimately form the next U.S. National Junior Team began trying to make up for that lost time Oct. 8-13 in Plymouth, Michigan.
USA Hockey invited 42 candidates to the National Junior Evaluation Camp, kicking preparation for the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship into high gear. With safety as a priority, players underwent testing and bubble protocols at USA Hockey Arena. The preparation and work within the bubble allowed staff and players to focus on hockey.
The final roster will head to Canada in mid-December to play in the tournament Dec. 25-Jan. 5 in Edmonton, Alberta at Rogers Place, home to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
Lost competitive time in advance of camp and the possibility of limited game action before the roster must be finalized raised the stakes in some ways at USA Hockey Arena.
“It was very significant,” John Vanbiesbrouck, general manager of the team and assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, said in a phone interview. “There are things that we take for granted — just to be able to get on the ice together to compete and evaluate. The season is not going to go normal.
“No players have been seen for months. After, we don’t know how many looks we’re going to get either in order to make our final determination.”
The group was as small as possible to minimize COVID-19 exposure risks, and the players faced the delicate balance of competing against one another while also aiming to become a team.
Providence College head coach Nate Leaman, an assistant in two previous World Junior Championships, will serve as head coach of the National Junior Team. He is trying to create a team that can earn a fifth U.S. medal in six years.
Leaman said an early goal of camp was to establish for the players what the staff was looking for, to give each of them the best chance to succeed before the difficult decisions are made on the final make-up of the team.
The evaluation games in the camp gave players an opportunity to test themselves against a group of the nation’s most talented players in their age range.
“One thing about the camp is this is a level that a lot of these guys have not played at,” Leaman said, “so, as much tape as I would watch over the course of the summer, this level for a lot of guys was new — the speed, the skill, how quick guys can get on you.
“Watching some things on tape was great, but there’s a lot less time and space here.”
Checking where players stood since the last time they were in game action — and how well they could begin making up for time lost due to the coronavirus pandemic — was part of the process.
“I think it took some time to get adjusted in the first couple days,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “Just from the variance of who has been skating in a competitive environment and who hasn’t been, then just the hockey timing, the gaps, the different types of distance and space and lanes, all that stuff.
“You can go out and have practices, but then you’ve got to get to a game. I think it took a little bit in our first scrimmage to get adjusted. It’s still late summertime, so it’s a little humid in the building, the puck’s bobbling and there’s a little scrambling, but by the end of camp, guys were operating on all cylinders and probably felt like it was starting to get more toward a cleaner game.”
The players may have already understood, but Vanbiesbrouck and Leaman both noted that they communicated with players that the camp would play a major role in producing the final roster.
“It’s a tough position they’ve all been put in,” Leaman said during a Zoom press conference near the end of camp. “The timing of this camp was to stay away from November, to stay away from when colleges are really gearing up their teams and starting to play.”
Adjustments to make the world tournament as safe as possible will increase the time commitment away from their college and junior teams for the players and staff who make the trip to Canada.
“We’ve been told we enter the bubble Dec. 13, so that’s our plan,” Leaman said. “… We’re only going to get about four to six games of evaluation of guys in college. The guys who are in junior hockey, we may not get any evaluation time, so this camp was extremely important.”
Leaman, who won a Division I national championship at Providence in 2015, said building a tournament team to represent the nation is different than that process was. Versatility will be at a premium both from individual players and in the overall roster.
“I’ve watched some of the [World Junior] games from the year before to try to think what would win this tournament,” Leaman said. “These tournaments are much different than a college season.
“It’s basically a one-shot against everybody so your game plan and your identity is maybe a little bit different than the patience of a college season and building up to be great in the second half of the season.”
Leaman hopes players left camp with an idea of what the team will look like if they are fortunate enough to make the final roster. Vanbiesbrouck and Leaman both praised the energy the players brought to the battle for roster spots.
Leaman knows at least one area he wants to see that intensity stand out in December and January.
“One of the things we really want is to get to the net,” he said. “We’ve been sharing with guys individually clips of how they get to the net. Are we stopping there? Are we planting there? Are we making it hard for the elite goaltenders in the world?”
That will be one of the many questions the group collectively tries to answer in two months time.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
All games took place in Edmonton, Alberta, at Rogers Place.
|U.S. Player of Game
|Tues., Dec 22
|Fri., Dec. 25
|Sat., Dec. 26
|Tues., Dec. 29
|Thurs., Dec. 31
|Sat., Jan. 2
|Mon., Jan. 4
|Tues., Jan. 5
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