After a year spent largely in isolation, USA Hockey has rejoined Finland and Sweden this summer in helping each other prepare their national teams for the 2022 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships, which will be held Dec. 26, 2021 through Jan. 5, 2022 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.
The World Junior Summer Showcase returned this year in a nearly normal format.
After being limited to a smaller camp in a bubble setting with simply intrasquad play last summer, USA Hockey was able to invite 44 players to be part of the event, which began July 24 and is wrapping up July 31 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
Each U.S. team was scheduled to play five games total against Finland and Sweden.
“Both the Finns and Swedes are really good teams,” said Nate Leaman, who coached the U.S. to gold in the most recent World Juniors and has been chosen to try to repeat that accomplishment. “We’re getting hard competition, really good evaluations of our guys to see how they’re going to stack up against the best competition.
“When you’re playing other countries, I think a lot more of the competitive juices are flowing.”
Prospects to make up Team USA for the World Junior Championships not only get international opponents to test themselves against, they get to do so in front of fans, who have been able to attend the event.
USA Hockey invited enough players to split into two teams. Sweden and Finland, which opened against each other for a total of six games each on the trip, brought rosters of 26-28 players to also give them a chance to see more players who could ultimately contend for spots on their final rosters.
The National Junior Evaluation Camp, which started in 2013, was replaced in 2017 with two teams from Canada joining the four who are in action this season.
“We had gone to Lake Placid in the past and it was established by Jim Johannson in cooperation with the other federations,” USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations John Vanbiesbrouck said of the late USA Hockey executive. “This is just a continuation of that. Hockey Canada could not come this year because of the COVID-19 limitations.”
There is still plenty of competition among the teams in attendance.
“This is a great evaluation for all the countries in these competitive games,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
The showcase is just part of the process that will ultimately determine the roster Team USA takes to Alberta.
Leaman is using the summer event, which began with three days of practice, to continue evaluating players for possible roster spots, while teaching newcomers to the list of prospects about the expectations for the approach the team will take.
“We’re definitely trying to put in some of the structure that we’re looking for, some of the identity, some of the things that are important to us,” Leaman said. “We’ve talked about and shown them film. We want them to know; we really want them to have a clear picture of what we’re looking for. Then, it gives them a fair chance of making the team.
Leaman hopes to have put each player in a position to show his best hockey. He said there is “constant feedback” for the players and he meets with them individually, when necessary, to make it clear what the coaches like and don’t like about what they are seeing.
“If you see them veer in one direction, you want to get them back on the right course,” he said.
With daily doubleheaders, with each U.S. team playing once against one of the European opponents, Leaman said there is a temptation to be on the bench for every game.
“As coaches, your instinct is to be on the bench and kind of evaluate the guys from the bench,” he said.
Instead, other coaches on the staff or a USA Hockey coach, has run each team in two games so that Leaman could get a look from “up top” in addition to the three games he has been hands-on in coaching each squad from ice level.
USA White and USA Blue are not playing against each other.
While the 44 players are battling each other for positions on the team, Leaman is pleased with the team feel that is developing, particularly with the way veterans continue to guide newcomers.
“I think within the camp, they look out for each other and help each other and there’s definitely a component of guys who were on the team trying to help new guys,” he said.
Vanbiesbrouck said such challenges should be common among players aspiring for the team.
“You can make it complicated, but it’s really not,” he said. “It’s what competitors do. On every team, there’s always an internal competition in order to achieve and earn, such as to be on the power play, or penalty kill and special teams.”
While they try to show how they can help Team USA at World Juniors, the players who make up the two U.S. teams have been competing for wins all week.
Finland proved to be the tougher opponent in the first three doubleheaders — Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. After also beating Sweden, 5-2, in the Showcase opener, Finland has three straight one-goal wins over U.S. teams — two over White and one over Blue. However, USA White responded with an overtime win earlier this morning.
USA Blue has played and beaten Sweden twice and USA White won its game against Sweden.
No games were decided by more than three goals. Four players have produced two-goal games for USA Blue. Tanner Dickinson led offensively in the opening, 4-2 win over Sweden.
Logan Cooley scored twice in the only loss, which came, 7-6, in a shootout with Finland.
Matthew Knies and Chase Yoder led offensively in Wednesday’s 5-2 win over Sweden.
USA White allowed just 15 shots in its only win, 4-1, over Sweden.
“I think it has gone pretty well according to the way we expect it,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We’re always looking for surprises in who’s going to raise their hand in a short period of time and be a player that we’re going to track hard into the season.”
The selection process will continue when the players go their separate ways for college and junior regular seasons, long after the showcase, but the first on-ice steps of team building are being completed.
“I believe, on behalf of players, that everybody’s goal is to make the team, but not only that, but to make a good team,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “All the elements that come together of being a good teammate and helping each other out, that seems to be the team goal. It takes a personal commitment to that.
“There’s a personal commitment, a team commitment and a, ‘You’re doing something bigger than yourself’ commitment.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.