Team USA never got the chance to skate in the 2020 International Ice Hockey Federation Under-18 Men’s World Championships when the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With other preparations complete and teams in quarantine in their final days before competition, the U.S. Under-18 Men’s National Team is getting ready to try to continue its history of success on home ice.
“It’s always there in the back of your head, ‘Will this even happen?’” forward Sasha Pastujov said in a telephone interview, while alone in his room waiting for lunch to arrive outside the door. “I think everyone involved has really done a great job making sure it does happen.
“No matter what the protocols are here, I think we’re all willing to do them to make sure we’re able to play.”
This year’s tournament is being conducted in Frisco and Plano, Texas, from April 26-May 6.
Team USA plays a pre-tournament game April 24 against Sweden and opens preliminary-round play April 26 against Russia. It is scheduled to play its entire slate of contests at Comerica Center in Frisco.
When tournament action starts, Team USA will be seeking a 17th straight medal and seventh gold medal in the past 11 tournaments.
“Just the fact that we’re playing, period, is a huge step for these players, this staff and international hockey,” said Dan Muse, USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 head coach, who is serving as head coach in an international tournament for the first time. “A year ago, this event wasn’t able to happen and now more than a year later, we’re getting ready for the puck to drop and U18 Worlds to begin. I think there’s huge significance for that.
“At this point, players are just excited to be playing the tournament. … It’s an honor to be representing your country and to be doing it on U.S. soil, it adds to the excitement for everybody.”
USA Hockey has selected a 25-player roster consisting of 19 players from Muse’s NTDP U18 squad, five promotions from the NTDP Under-17 team and goalie Braden Holt, who has been playing with the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League.
“We’re excited to have Braden,” Muse said. “He’s a real competitor. He’s an outstanding young man. He’s done a great job acclimating to the group, so we’re excited that he’s a part of our team.”
The younger players from the NTDP have had a chance to impress Muse while training at the same facility and some have filled in with the U18 squad during the season.
Rutger McGroarty has played 10 United States Hockey League games with the U18 team. Muse let him know after a while that he was not just filling in there, but also auditioning for the world championship team spot he eventually earned.
“I think the fundamentals are the same — work your hardest every shift, move your feet, play physical,” said McGroarty, who made his first U18 appearance in December and said he was feeling more comfortable with the team by late February or early March. “I try to play a repeatable game, but there are a few different things, a few different roles and different line combinations.”
The official word that he would be part of the team for U18 Worlds came last week.
“I was pumped,” McGroarty said. “It’s an honor to represent the country and I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks.”
Pastujov, McGroarty’s future Notre Dame teammate, helped the U.S. earn a silver medal at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge with a goal and seven assists in six games.
“It was a great tournament,” Pastujov said. “We got a feel for what international play is like and we can take from that tournament some of the ups and downs.
“Getting that silver medal I think motivates us for this tournament. We’re definitely aware of [the past U.S. success], but every year is different with all the age groups.”
That U17 Challenge experience can be helpful in a time when international experience is limited for players in this age group because of all the events that could not be conducted in the past year-plus.
Many of the players and teams are a bit more of a mystery to each other as the tournament opens.
“For this tournament specifically, we don’t have a lot of video on the other teams,” Pastujov said. “As this tournament goes on, there will be more and more as the teams play each other, but I think our coaches will do a great job with that, setting us up and putting us in the best spots to be successful.
“Once you get into the medal rounds, the preparation will be there and the games will be on another whole level of compete and energy.”
Muse sees the lack of international experience across the board as an issue that impacts all nation’s similarly. He knows the identity he wants his team to develop.
“We want to be a team that is doing things the right way, playing hard in all three zones,” Muse said. “We want to be a team that has an extremely high compete level, that’s relentless in its attack and we believe we can be a team that will have six players working in conjunction with each other to defend the right way and defend hard.”
Team USA and Russia are in Group B with Czech Republic, Finland and Germany. Group A of the 10-team tournament consists of Belarus, Canada, Latvia, Sweden and Switzerland and will play its preliminary round games at the Children’s Health StarCenter in Plano.
Quarterfinals will be split between the two sites with the semifinals and finals being played in Frisco.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.