Experience can be an important commodity in the ever-changing rosters of international junior hockey competition.
It may prove to be particularly valuable in the more isolated experience of playing in an IIHF World Junior Championship in a bubble.
Team USA brings back six players, and its entire coaching and support staff, from the group that won the 2021 World Junior Championship. They have returned to Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta, for the 2022 tournament, which begins Dec. 26 and continues through Jan. 5, 2022.
After an intense three-day camp at the USA Hockey Arena in Michigan and two full days of quarantine following the arrival in Canada, the team is back on the ice preparing for what’s ahead.
“We’re getting itchy to play,” head coach Nate Leaman said during a Tuesday night Zoom press conference. “We’re getting itchy to compete against someone else in a different jersey.”
The United States will get to do that officially Dec. 26 against Slovakia after a Dec. 23 pre-tournament exhibition against Finland.
University of North Dakota defenseman Jake Sanderson, one of the six on-ice returnees and the player Leaman calls “the best in college hockey this year,” has been selected to serve as captain.
“We have a couple really young guys out there,” Sanderson said in a telephone interview from Red Deer. “You want to make them comfortable and maybe share some of the experiences I have with the team.”
For the newcomers, Sanderson said it will be different than games to which they may be accustomed.
“Playing international teams is a lot different than playing college hockey games or major junior games,” he said. “We’ll be telling the guys about what other countries do when they’re playing.”
An understanding of the different styles of international teams is just one of the factors that returnees Sanderson, Tyler Kleven and Brock Faber bring to the defense and Landon Slaggert, Brett Berard and Matty Berniers bring the forward group.
With outside activities eliminated due to the bubble, a close-knit team goes from being a goal to being a necessity.
“The closer we are as a team throughout this tournament, the better off we’ll be and the more success we’ll have,” said Berard, who joins Faber as the top returning scorers after each produced five points last season.
Although bubble life is potentially stressful, it also can assist in building team bonds.
Berard took a positive attitude to the quarantine days, saying it was a good chance to rest and recharge between a busy stretch of college and camp and the demanding tournament.
Now, the team is back to work as many of their supporters back at home head into the relaxing time of the holidays.
“I don’t think anyone is jumping up and down to spend Christmas in a bubble,” Leaman said, “but it’s an unbelievable opportunity for us to represent our country and it’s an unbelievable opportunity for all of us to play in a best-on-best tournament.
“We’re very grateful that we’re getting this opportunity.”
A year ago, Team USA made the most of that opportunity.
“Especially with all these [COVID] factors, it’s a hard tournament,” Berard said. “I think it’s just important for all of us to support each other, stay together and build a close relationship, which I think we will because of how much time we’ll be together while being in this bubble.”
The United States is in Group B, playing in Red Deer with Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Slovakia.
Sanderson called team camp and practices, “some of the best hockey I’ve played so far,” saying it is adding to his excitement as the team prepares each day.
“We don’t have a lot of big names, but I’m very confident in our team once we start playing,” he said.
It is an experienced group defensively, but Berard can also see other traits emerging.
“We have a lot of skill on our team,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would be here if they weren’t highly skilled, but I think we have a good hard-working group that will stick up for each other.
“I think we’re really fast too. I think it’s definitely a strength to our team, so if we play to that I think we’ll have success in the tournament.”
That has often been the case for the United States with 13 medals, including five in the last six years, at the World Junior Championship. Team USA struck gold in 2004, 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2021.
“Bubble, no bubble, wherever, we’re playing,” Leaman said, “we can’t wait to represent our country.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.